As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, a new wave of violence looms for millions of civilians in the country’s north.
Over the last year, the Syrian government has recaptured all rebel-held territory in the south, securing President Bashar al-Assad’s position. All that remains of the armed opposition is cornered in the province of Idlib and parts of Aleppo.
And yet in those areas, a militant force that shows little regard to the original aims of Syria’s uprising has consolidated power, and looks set for a showdown with the Syrian army and its Russian backer.
The Syrian army says it is responding to an increase in attacks from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadists – a group designated as a terrorist organisation by the UK, with former ties to al-Qaeda.
After a string of victories against other opposition groups, it is the dominant force in Idlib – and controls border crossings into the area.
In consolidating its power, it has engaged in the same kind of repression that sparked the uprising against Assad’s rule, with its notorious security branch rounding up and imprisoning those who call for the democratic ideals of the revolution.
The group is also accused of being behind the assassinations of several well known activists, including Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneid, who ran a local radio station where they spoke out against the militants.
Hundreds have died in Syrian government and Russian attacks on “de-escalation” zones in Idlib over the past two months, and some 40,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape the fighting.
The province is home to more than 3 million people, around half of whom are displaced from other parts of the country. Aid groups on the ground have warned that camps are bursting at the seams.
“There is a huge sense of panic now in Idlib as more health facilities are forced to close and people are dying or suffering in acute pain because they cannot get the treatment they need,” says Naser Haghamed, CEO of Islamic Relief, a charity that operates in Idlib.
“Once again, it’s the beleaguered civilians who are finding themselves under attack on all fronts. Wherever they are and regardless of who is controlling them, people must have access to lifesaving healthcare and the international community must step up to ensure that aid continues to reach those in crisis.”
But charities are at risk of falling foul of the law if they send aid into Idlib via a crossing controlled by a designated terrorist organisation. The risk of being caught up in the fighting is increasing by the day.
Wednesday saw some of the worst bombing in weeks, with Russian and Syrian government forces targeting the Idlib countryside and the city itself.
“It’s horrific, everything is being bombed in Idlib city right now,” says Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a university lecturer living in Idlib, originally from Aleppo.
“It’s a very crowded city. The casualties will be a lot. People are really terrified, trauma is clear on the faces,” he tells The Independent.
Many in Idlib now fear a government offensive is imminent. A long-threatened plan to recapture the province was put on hold last year following an agreement between Russia and Turkey, which has military forces on the ground there and backs a number of rebel groups in the area.
The UN has warned that a large-scale military assault on Idlib would create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.
Turkey, which has deployed military forces on the ground in Idlib to deter an all-out government offensive, had hoped the deal would allow time to reach an agreement between Damascus and the remaining rebel holdouts. But since then the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has increased its control of the province, dimming those hopes.
“We are too scared now to speak out now against the group – anyone that speaks of democracy is a criminal,” Hazaa, an Idlib resident, tells The Independent.
“But now – we are more scared of the bombing of the regime and Russia”, he added, giving only his first name.
Acknowledging the attacks on Wednesday, the Russian military said it struck a warehouse belonging to Sham, and that those airstrikes were coordinated with Turkey.
Yasser, who lives in the Idlib countryside and gave only his first name, said he heard the bombing from his village.
“All of the residents and refugees in the liberated areas are confused and afraid of what will happen now,” he tells The Independent. “Will the regime and Russia attack, or will Turkey stop this bombardment?”
In many ways, Syria enters its ninth year of war much as it did the first. Extreme violence and repression plagues much of the country, but despite the government’s best efforts, the original conditions for the country’s upheaval remain.
Last week, hundreds protested in the city of Deraa, the “cradle of the revolution”, against the erection of a new statue of Assad’s late father. It was in that city, eight years ago, that peaceful protests against Assad’s rule began, before spreading to the rest of the country.
The protest represented the first large-scale peaceful demonstration in government-controlled areas for some time, and comes despite a widespread crackdown across the south.
The government recaptured the city in the middle of last year, and despite a number of “reconciliation” agreements with former rebels, has picked up where it left off.
“Upon its return, the regime arrested hundreds of formally cleared rebels and civilians with a track record of unarmed opposition activity, marking the reappearance of unaccountable security agencies,” the Crisis Group wrote in a report on the situation in the south last month.
This approach will further hamper the government’s efforts to retain control over the entire country, as it has expressed a desire to do, the report added.
“As long as the situation in the south does not improve significantly, refugees and the internally displaced will not return in substantial numbers, fearing joblessness, homelessness and arbitrary arrest.”
Elsewhere in Syria, events are moving apace outside of the government’s control. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces now control one third of the country, and is finishing off the last remnants of the Isis caliphate.
Despite some signs the Kurdish-led administration that rules the area would seek reconciliation with Damascus, uncertainty over the future of the US presence in the country has led them to be more cautious. President Donald Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of his 2,000 US soldiers in the country in December, but he has gone back and forth ever since.
Turkey, which considers the SDF a terror group, has long threatened to cross the border and set up a safe zone in areas it controls, setting up the potential for a new conflict between the two US allies. That potential conflict, much like Idlib, is frozen while the big powers negotiate its fate.
Despite a grim outlook for many across Syria, eight years of war have not entirely crushed the ideas and anger that brought thousands to the streets.
“I cannot say the revolution has finished,” says Hamdo. “I have been displaced once, if I am displaced again I’m not gonna be convinced the revolution has ended, because it’s in my heart.”
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