Thousands flee southern Idlib as threat of pro-government offensive looms large

Smoke rises near the rural Idlib town of a-Tamanah after government bombing on Wednesday. Photo provided by a local resident.

AMMAN: Under a barrage of barrel bombs and rockets that pounded the southern Idlib countryside last Friday, Khaled al-Adnan and more than a dozen of his family members rushed from their homes and fled.

They wound their way through the farmlands that sweep across the mostly rural province, before finding refuge in a nearby town.

But there seemed to be no escape from the pro-government bombardment. “It was the same situation in every village,” the farmer remembered. “They were all being bombed.”

The only option was to head deeper into the northwestern pocket that is now home to an estimated 2.5 to 3.3 million civilians—including more than one million displaced from across Syria—and the only remaining rebel-held region after more than seven years of conflict.

By nightfall, al-Adnan arrived to the border town of Armanaz where he and his family are staying in a rented house—for now, at least.  

Al-Adnan’s hometown in southern Idlib lies among a handful of settlements near the province’s government-rebel frontlines that were almost entirely emptied of their residents this week as the pro-government assault continued, according to the opposition-affiliated Response Coordination Group that tracks displacement trends across northern Syria.

Yet as the displaced—estimated in the thousands—fled the immediate threat posed by encroaching pro-government bombardment, rumors of an imminent offensive to seal Idlib’s fate have left civilians like al-Adnan guessing what lies ahead.

“As we left, we looked back,” he said, “and wondered whether we’ll ever return.”

‘Idlib is our goal’

Pro-government forces last month re-established control over the entirety of Syria’s southwest in a massive aerial and ground assault on Daraa and Quneitra provinces, targeting both rebel groups and an Islamic State affiliate.

Since then, all eyes have been on Idlib in anticipation of what many observers believe may be a looming offensive to retake the last remaining rebel-held territory in Syria.

“Now, Idlib is our goal,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russian media in late July, as the battle in the south came to a close.

Days later, Syrian military helicopters dropped leaflets over Idlib province, calling on civilians to “join local reconciliation as many others in Syria have done,” a reference to a series of agreements that have seen rebels cede control to the government and fighters and civilians transported to the opposition-held northwest in convoys of evacuation buses.

“Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will release you from the rule of militants and terrorists, and will preserve your families’ lives,” one leaflet read.

The closure last Sunday of the Qalaat al-Madiq crossing—a dividing point between government- and rebel-held territory just south of Idlib—has also been interpreted as one sign of a possibly imminent offensive. Pro-government media have meanwhile reported on “massive [pro-government] military reinforcements” heading to the same area.

Ongoing bombardment began on Friday and continued throughout this week, targeting areas of Idlib province’s southern and western countrysides, as well as towns in neighboring Aleppo province where rebel factions have reportedly declared military zones in a number of villages. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the latest assault, according to the United Nations (UN) and local Civil Defense workers.

IDP camps ‘cannot take any more’

A wider government military operation on Idlib province could further hamper efforts to deliver assistance to residents in the area, where humanitarian organizations are already struggling to meet massive needs.

Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, warned in a statement Tuesday that a wider military operation would “endanger” civilians and “severely impact humanitarian partners’ ability to deliver life-saving assistance.”

Local leaders and residents say they are already struggling to make ends meet.  

Abu Ali, manager of the makeshift al-Midan camp that lies on agricultural land near the northern Idlib town of Kafr Dariyan, described an influx of more than 100 families from the southern countryside this week.

“The camp cannot take any more,” he told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Most families are staying out in the open, with no shelter or tents.”

But for residents fleeing the current bombardment—or those who may flee in the case of a wider offensive—there are few other places to go.

The Turkish border just north of al-Midan, and the cluster of overcrowded camps that have emerged across northern Idlib, remains closed to new arrivals. And Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, appears determined to prevent a Syrian government attack that could threaten the status quo.

As part of a “de-escalation agreement” reached with Iran and Russia last year, Turkey already maintains 12 observation points across Idlib and backs an array of rebel factions controlling a large segment of Aleppo province.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for an alternative to a government assault—which he said could be “catastrophic”—during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Ankara on Tuesday.

“We should separate the moderate opposition from the terrorists,” he said. “Since all those groups and also the civilians are very unhappy with these terrorists, we should all be cooperating.”

In his own statement from Ankara, Lavrov also sought to distinguish between so-called “terror groups” and the other factions that make up the complex web of influence and control in the northwest.

“We know Jabhat a-Nusra is active [in Idlib], with thousands of militants,” he said, referring to hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), which controls large portions of Idlib province as well as areas of neighboring Aleppo and Hama provinces.

“Armed groups should split from terror groups,” he added, noting that those groups are not meant to be included in the Idlib de-escalation zone.

Despite Tuesday’s remarks, a rebel commander with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in northern Hama told Syria Direct that there’s been no official directive from Turkey indicating that an operation against HTS will take place, and that the FSA remains focused on the “cause of the revolution.”

“Any confrontation within Idlib would be a danger to the whole of northern Syria,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press. “We’re currently preparing for the great battle against the regime and the Russians.”

While Idlib’s fate is debated by international powers and military factions, civilians in the province have been left with little indication of what may be next.

“We’ve got no clue what’s going on,” said Muhammad al-Yousef, a media activist in the Jabal a-Zawiya region of southern Idlib, who asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons. “One day it’s this and the next it’s that. All we’ve got to go on is statements.”

And although bombardment continues nearby, al-Yousef said he has no plans to flee elsewhere in Idlib at the moment.

“The situation in the camps is terrible,” he told Syria Direct on Thursday. “You go there and sleep under some trees with your family.”

“I’d rather stay home.”

With reporting by Tamer Tarad Talal, Bashir al-Bari and Muhammad al-Hourani.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

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.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Abdullah al-Hassan

Abdullah al-Hasan is from Latakia and left for Jordan in 2012. He studies civil engineering and has worked for refugee-support organizations in the past. In gaining new skills in journalism he hopes to first and foremost support refugees via accurate reporting.

Ola Mas

Ola is from Daraa in Syria. She moved to Jordan in 2012 and studied journalism at Yarmouk University in Irbid. She enrolled in the training program at Syria Direct because she hopes to develop her skills in journalism so that she may share with the world the truth about what is happening in her country.