AMMAN: Thousands of displaced families are returning to their homes in east Idlib province following the end of a government ground offensive against rebels there and the establishment of a Turkish military observation point this month.
In the southeast Idlib city of Saraqeb, approximately 3,000 families returned in the past week alone, local council president Muthana al-Mohammad told Syria Direct. Three-fourths of Saraqeb’s 50,000 residents fled their homes this past January and early February to escape airstrikes and approaching Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces.
“The city is gradually coming back to life,” said al-Mohammad.
An estimated 300,000 people from southeastern Idlib and northern Hama fled their homes earlier this year after the Syrian army launched a ground offensive against rebels in January with the support of artillery fire, air strikes and pro-Assad militias.
Thousands of displaced people—those without the money to rent another home or relatives to stay with in other rebel-held town and cities—sought refuge in crowded, underserved displacement camps clustered along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Displaced residents return to the eastern Idlib town of al-Ghadfa on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Edlib Media Center.
During the SAA offensive, government troops and their allies captured large swathes of Idlib’s eastern countryside by pushing south from Aleppo and north from Hama. By early February, pro-government forces began to push westward toward more populated regions of the rebel-held province, Syria Direct reported at the time.
But on February 9, the General Command of the Syrian Armed Forces announced in a video statement published by state media agency SANA that the Syrian Arab Army “successfully concluded” military operations in Hama, Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
On the same day that the SAA announced the conclusion of military operations, a Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) convoy established “a new ceasefire observation point in the Idlib de-escalation zone” in a town just east of Saraqeb, the Ankara-run Anadolu Agency reported. Days later, Turkey established an additional observation point in the southeastern Idlib town of Surman.
The observation points were among twelve military posts to be established in Idlib and adjacent rebel territories of Aleppo and Hama provinces as part of a de-escalation agreement announced by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan in May 2017. So far, six Turkish ceasefire observation points have been established.
Muthana al-Mohammad, president of Saraqeb’s local council, told Syria Direct on Monday that he considers the Turkish observation posts a main factor in the return of residents to the eastern countryside as they “reassure civilians.” Saraqeb lies 15 km west of the TSK observation point at Tal Tuqan.
For Matiya al-Ahmad, a resident of the eastern Idlib town of Jarjanaz, just five kilometers east of the TSK’s Surman observation point, the end of the SAA offensive meant he could reunite with his family.
In mid-January, al-Ahmad sent his wife, children and parents to the northern Idlib countryside after an airstrike hit the top floor of the building where he and his family lived.
“I told them I wouldn’t leave [Jarjanaz] until they returned,” al-Ahmad told Syria Direct this week.
Residents clear rubble from streets of Jarjanaz on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Jarjanaz Local Council.
Al-Ahmad sent word to his family to return three days ago and is now living with them in their home once more.
Although al-Ahmad’s family and many of his neighbors returned this week, the Jarjanaz resident said that he worries bombings could return despite the nearby Turkish observation posts.
“We’re still living in terror,” he said on Monday. “Just this morning, we saw a reconnaissance plane circling the skies.”
Syria Direct contacted the Turkish Armed Forces this week regarding the timetable for establishing the remaining six observations points but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
As residents return to east Idlib, local council members are working in coordination with organizations like the Syrian Civil Defense to repair infrastructure “devastated” by last month’s bombardment, Muthana al-Mohammad of the Saraqeb Local Council told Syria Direct.
Medical facilities in Saraqeb remain out of service, water pumps need repairs and roughly half of the city is without power, said al-Mohammad.
In Jarjanaz, 30km south of Saraqeb, local council members and a local police force began to clear rubble from the streets on Monday, Mohammad al-Dagheem, the council’s president told Syria Direct. He estimates that 30 percent of residents have returned in the past week.
Photos and videos published by pro-opposition outlets this week show eastern countryside residents unpacking pickup trucks piled with clothes and carrying belongings back into their homes.
Images from the east Idlib town of al-Ghadfa show a handful of pedestrians walking through the streets as families clear rubble and shattered glass from homes. Store owners lay out small selections of produce and other goods for returning residents to purchase.
“People are still coming back daily,” Qasi al-Hussein told Syria Direct from al-Ghadfa. Al-Hussein recently returned to the town from the provincial capital, Idlib city.
Al-Hussein’s family is one of 800 that returned in the past week to al-Ghadfa, which lies roughly 8 km northwest of the Turkish observation point in Surman, local council president Bassam a-Rahmoun told Syria Direct.
“People are encouraging one another to come back,” said al-Hussein. “Little by little, life is returning.”