Russian and Syrian soldiers guard a crossing east of Idlib province in August. George Ourfalian/AFP.
AMMAN: Bassel al-Jaber watches his words these days. The 38-year-old arrived in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province last month, after pro-government forces recaptured his rural Daraa hometown from rebels in a massive military offensive that ultimately saw thousands of fighters and civilians bussed north.
In Idlib, al-Jaber and his family are trying to move on from the trauma, he says.
“There are dinners with friends, we stay up late chatting with guests,” the father of six tells Syria Direct, requesting that his real name be withheld for security reasons. “Even the kids are getting along well.”
But there’s one topic of conversation that al-Jaber avoids while chatting through the night with his newfound neighbors in Idlib, where mounting pro-government troop movements suggest a looming military offensive is likely to soon close in on what is now Syria’s last remaining rebel-held province.
“Every time we mention that [fact], we feel that people try to change the subject, as if we’re upsetting them,” al-Jaber says. “People get offended.”
Thousands of Daraa residents have arrived in Idlib over the last month, the latest evacuees to reach the rebel-held northwest. They join more than one million other Syrians displaced there, following a series of all-out military offensives and reconciliation deals by pro-government forces that have retaken enclave after enclave from rebels. Many of them—like al-Jaber—arrived over the past two years as passengers on the Syrian government’s seemingly ubiquitous evacuation buses.
But for Idlib’s newest arrivals, the trauma of forced displacement is still painfully fresh—an experience that several of those displaced from Daraa tell Syria Direct they’re unwilling to go through again, as they scramble to get out of the province before what they see as an imminent onslaught. Many fear that upcoming battle for Idlib could be every bit as devastating—if not more so—than the offensive that drove them into displacement the first time around.
“None of us expected Daraa to fall [to pro-government forces],” says Yasser al-Omari, who also arrived in Idlib from the eastern Daraa province town of Busra a-Sham last month.
Because much of rural Daraa and the provincial capital once formed one of Syria’s major opposition strongholds, al-Omari says he and others were surprised when they suddenly “saw the battles and [then] the surrender,” he tells Syria Direct, referring to a series of reconciliation agreements that saw one Daraa rebel group after another hand over opposition-held towns to the government through July. He requested that his real name be withheld for security reasons.
Al-Omari says the tension mounting among Idlib residents mirrors the anxiety he felt in Daraa in the days before the Syrian army and allied forces eventually retook the whole of the southern province.
“Basically, we’re going through the same thing now,” the 36-year-old tells Syria Direct from the home he and his family now rent in rural Idlib.
“We’re just waiting around for the regime to enter [Idib].”
A last stand?
Since pro-government forces seized all of Syria’s southwestern Daraa and Quneitra provinces last month in an all-out aerial and ground assault, all eyes have turned to Idlib. According to observers, the province could soon be the site of a final push by Assad and his allies to retake the country’s last remaining opposition territory, following weeks of threatening statements from senior Syrian government officials about the fate of the rebel pocket.
“Now, Idlib is our goal,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russian media late last month, as the battle for the south came to a close.
Last week, the Russian military announced that two of its warships had been deployed to Syria’s Mediterranean coast—joining three other ships recently spotted heading there, according to Reuters. An Iraqi proxy militia, Liwa Imam al-Hussein, has also reportedly deployed close to Idlib province recently, while pro-government ground forces—including the elite Tiger Forces and reconciled rebel factions—were stationed near Idlib over the weekend.
The reinforcements come after Syrian government forces earlier this month closed the Qalaat al-Madiq crossing, which previously served as a gateway between government- and opposition-held territory south of Idlib.
Meanwhile, pro-government bombardments in August have already killed dozens of civilians throughout Idlib and displaced thousands more.
Recent developments have al-Jaber, the father of six from rural Daraa, feeling nervous. He’s already witnessed first-hand the impacts of fighting within his own hometown. In 2013, when rebel and government forces were fighting for control of parts of Daraa province, shrapnel from an explosion left him paralyzed from the waist down.
A former Syrian army soldier who defected in the early days of the conflict, al-Jaber says staying in Daraa after the government’s victory last month simply wasn’t an option for him, as he feared possible arrest. “Staying behind would mean death for me and my family,” he tells Syria Direct.
But now in Idlib, that fear has returned as al-Jaber follows almost daily updates of government and Russian reinforcements closing in on the province.
“I’m not ready to lose one of my children,” he says.
Al-Jaber, like other recent arrivals from Daraa, tell Syria Direct they are desperately saving whatever cash they can, in the hopes of paying people smugglers to guide them across the nearby Turkish border before the anticipated battle heats up.
Among them is al-Omari, who hopes that the savings from his tailoring job back in rural Daraa might be just enough to get himself and his family across the border.
He says that he has roughly $530 in cash that he brought when he rode the government’s evacuation buses north from Busra a-Sham last month. And though the smuggling journey into Turkey is a major risk—reports of Turkish border guards fatally shooting Syrian civilians at the border are far from new—it’s one he says he’s willing to take.
“The regime is going to enter [Idlib] before long, and we need to take care of ourselves before then,” al-Omari tells Syria Direct from his home in rural Idlib. “That’s the biggest thing we’re hoping for—not aid, not anything. Just getting out.”
“We saw what they did in Daraa.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.