In one town in Idlib’s buffer zone, residents fleeing ongoing bombardments lose hope for Russian-Turkish deal

Makeshift camps line rural streets outside of Jarjanaz on December 4. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ayoub.

AMMAN: Huddled on a cold floor with his wife and three children each night, Mahmoud Khattab is frequently shaken from his slumber by crashes of pro-government shelling, just a few kilometers away in northwestern Idlib province’s Jarjanaz, that roll across the olive groves where he and his family have taken refuge.

While the rattling of the floorboards terrifies his children, the 52-year-old says, the soft topsoil of the surrounding farmland softens the blows––and the small wooden shack where they now sleep doesn’t shake as violently as their home near the town center that they fled from last week.

And yet while the relative safety of these rural outskirts offers some respite from the bombs that interrupt the daily lives of Jarjanaz’s few remaining inhabitants, Khattab describes how being forced from their home for the first time has left the entire family in tatters.

“A life of displacement is worse than death,” says Khattab. “My family has been in a state of psychological collapse ever since we made the decision to flee our house.”

A small farming town, Jarjanaz is just one of the dozens of embattled villages that dot a strip of protected territory in northwestern Syria supposedly created to prevent violence.

At least 18 civilians have been killed and 51 others wounded in bombardments since November 30, according to local activists.

A 15 to 20 km-wide belt of territory encircling Idlib province that comprises rebel-held parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces as well, the buffer zone was the result of high-stakes negotiations between the governments of Russia and Turkey back in September. The agreement was widely celebrated earlier this year for staving off a purportedly imminent pro-government offensive on what had become Syria’s last remaining opposition stronghold.

According to the deal, rebel groups were expected to remove all heavy weaponry from the area by October 10, and hardline Islamist groups to vacate the zone altogether before October 15. There are doubts about whether those objectives were met before their respective deadlines.

Despite a ceasefire agreement that also officially covers the area, months of on-off skirmishes and escalating tit-for-tat violence between the Syrian army and its allies on one side, and a range of rebel and hardline Islamist groups on the other, has increasingly threatened the stability of the hard-won deal.

Regional powers hope to see the deal stick. And on November 20, the Turkish and Russian defence ministers vowed to continue coordinating to “close all the remaining issues in Idlib,” according to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense.

“The current situation in Syria requires our immediate solution and discussion of the pending issues,” the statement added.

Still, the agreement has been tested. In retaliation for an alleged chlorine gas attack launched by hardline Islamist fighters on government-held parts of Aleppo city on November 24, pro-government forces—reportedly backed by several Russian warplanes—bombarded rebel-held towns along the buffer zone.

‘I only stayed to document what’s happening’

The sudden escalation dramatically ended five weeks of relative quiet on northwestern front lines, marking the first time that Russian warplanes had been used to hit rebel positions since the Russia-Turkish agreement went into effect in mid-September.

At the time of writing, a statement from the White House—reportedly due for release Tuesday—is expected to claim that the Syrian government faked the attack using tear gas, before blaming it on rebels.

As repeated and continuous clashes have methodically chipped away at the foundations of an agreement that saw entire villages return to their abandoned homes along the front lines, thousands of families have since been forced from their homes once again.

Jarjanaz, a rural town with a pre-war population of nearly 11,000 inhabitants, has reportedly seen the exodus of over 70 percent of its inhabitants since the resumption of clashes and a rising crescendo of aerial bombardment by pro-government forces, according to local media reports.

A child stands outside a displaced family’s home in the Idlib buffer zone. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Ayoub.

Others meanwhile suggest that the number of displaced could be even higher.

“After nearly 10 days of intensive shelling over the town of Jarjanaz, most of the civilians are gone,” says Fayez al-Daghim, a local media activist who says he is one of the last people remaining in the town. “More than 95 percent have been displaced—I have only stayed here as a journalist to document what is happening.”

While many families have reportedly managed to rent or secure housing with friends and family in nearby towns, others have made their way to informal camps dotted around the farmlands surrounding many of the rural buffer zone towns currently being targeted.

Abu Hamdu from Idlib’s branch of the Syria Civil Defense, the group of first responders commonly known as the White Helmets, meanwhile tells Syria Direct that some 125 families—approximately 650 people—have fled Jarjanaz for makeshift encampments and informal housing in the area, as temperatures have dropped this week and wintry weather conditions set in.

Father of three Khattab is not hopeful. “Displacement has been tragic in every sense of the word,” he says. “Of course, there’s no aid or assistance because we’re being bombed with all kinds of weapons—and no one in the world says a thing.”

‘The bombing isn’t stopping’

Muhammad Ayoub, a member of the Local Relief Council that distributes aid locally from the town of al-Tah, 10 kilometers from Jarjanaz, says that 500 Jarjanaz families are now living in informal camps in the area.

According to Ayoub, the rapidly deteriorating situation has left thousands in need of emergency aid and supplies as winter sets in. Local authorities have made desperate calls to local aid organizations, many of them based in nearby Maarat a-Numan, requesting urgent relief for the injured and displaced, he says.

However, Ayoub adds, organizations have been reluctant to enter the buffer zone out of fear of bombardments, leaving local authorities in and around Jarjanaz overwhelmed and with few resources left.

“As a local council, we honestly didn’t have any contingency plan and we hadn’t counted on this happening after the Sochi deal,” he says. “Our area is located inside the buffer zone, but the regime isn’t adhering to the agreement at all.”

Displaced residents similarly tell Syria Direct that whatever optimism they had that the de-escalation agreement would hold has disappeared.

“People had breathed a sigh of relief, and life was flourishing recently in Jarjanaz, because it was within the Sochi buffer zone,” says Um Muhammad, a woman displaced two weeks ago from Jarjanaz amid shelling by pro-government forces.

She and her family are now renting a small apartment in Maarat a-Numan, a city in Idlib province that has become home for displaced civilians from across the region.

“It feels like a prison here,” she adds. “I really hope to return, but I don’t think [I will], since the bombing isn’t stopping and the regime isn’t sticking to any agreements.”

“[For them], it’s more about striking at any time.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.