As the bombs rain down on the towns and villages of Idlib, the Syrian government and its Russian ally have sought to portray its latest offensive as a battle to uproot terrorists. Syrian state news is littered with reports of operations against “dens” and “fortifications”.
But while radical groups and government forces are indeed facing off in the last rebel-held bastion, the reality on the ground is more complicated. Civilian casualties from Russian and Syrian government airstrikes are rising by the day, hospitals and medical facilities are being destroyed by the dozen, and towns whose residents stood against extremism for years have spent the past few weeks pulling bodies from under the rubble.
The town of Kafranbel is perhaps the most striking example. From the first days of the Syrian revolution, residents there held weekly demonstrations against both the Syrian government and extremist rebel groups as the latter grew in strength across the province. For their stubborn adherence to the original, democratic ideals of the Syrian uprising, the town’s residents earned the moniker of “the conscience of the revolution”. But it didn’t help them avoid the carnage.
“From the beginning, we have come out onto the streets to say we are against extremism. Despite this, the regime has continued to attack it,” says 28-year-old journalist Mohannad Darwish, who was born in the town.
Darwish was recently forced to flee his home when the Syrian government launched a new offensive in Idlib late last month, along with some 270,000 others from across the province who have moved further north. Earlier this month, a Russian airstrike in the town killed 10 civilians in a single attack, including a pregnant woman and her two children, according to the “White Helmets”, officially known as Syria Civil Defence. And this week, a Syrian airstrike hit the Dar al Hekma hospital, putting it out of service.
“The bombing has been very intense, and it is relentless. Civilians are being targeted. The amount of destruction is enormous. You can’t imagine how awful this kind of killing is,” he tells The Independent.
“Russian planes are supposed to be able to target precisely, and they are still hitting civilians’ homes,” he adds.
That these towns are being targeted with such ferocity has again exposed an uncomfortable truth of the Syrian conflict: civilians who oppose the rule of Bashar al-Assad are treated little differently from the extremist groups the government claims to be liberating them from
The same story is playing out just a few miles from Kafranbel in the town of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, another place known for its opposition to extremist groups in Idlib. Like their neighbours, residents there took to the streets weekly to protest against the Syrian government and extremist groups.
On Thursday, local activists reported five civilians in the town were killed in a Russian airstrike, among them were two children. A week ago a Syrian airstrike hit a busy market, killing 11 civilians.
“Today, Ma’arat al-Nu’man and the area were bombed with tens of air raids, killing and injuring tens of people – children, women and elderly people. The regime kills us under the pretext of terrorism, and the regime is the one that created terrorism,” says Mahmoud, a 44-year-old nurse who has lived in the town since 2011 and declined to give his full name.
“The regime and Russia are bombing the area with all their might, knowing that there is no terrorism here,” he says. “Extremism exists everywhere, but the rate is very small here. We fought against it in the past and we are fighting against it now.”
The fate of these two towns speak to the complexity of a battlefield that is often viewed in black and white terms. They have long been on the frontline of a war within a war, one which has defined the Syrian revolution from its birth.
In the first few years of the Syrian uprising, the armed opposition to Assad’s rule was dominated by a loose and unofficial coalition of more moderate rebel groups which claimed to fight for a democratic Syria. But as time went on, those groups were gradually crowded out and suppressed by radicals with more funding.
“As the uprising militarised and radicalised, in both of these towns, local civilians were able to keep some degree of control over armed actors and keep out jihadist groups,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, of the Forum for Regional Thinking, tells The Independent.
“In that space, locals were able to keep peaceful protests going and civil society was able to flourish, despite the immense challenges of running initiatives in areas under constant airstrikes, with Syrian regime jets hunting for large gatherings of people to bomb.”
That changed over the past year, however. Those activists have been squeezed from both sides. The formerly al-Qaeda-linked group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has taken control of most of the province at the expense of more moderate groups backed by Turkey.
The group arrested local pro-democracy campaigners in Kafranbel, and was suspected of involvement in the killing of its most prominent voice, 45-year-old activist Raed Fares. Fares was gunned down by masked men in November last year.
The Syrian government and Russia have both used the rise of HTS as a justification for the offensive in Idlib, portraying themselves as liberators. At a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday to discuss the offensive, Sergei Vershinin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said Moscow shared concerns about the situation in and around Idlib, but insisted the presence of HTS warranted the operation.
“People are dying at the hands of terrorists,” he said. “Attacks are continuing with the use of multiple rocket launchers and combat drones against Russian military facilities. The fighters from HTS are terrorising civilians and they’re using civilian infrastructure for military ends and also using civilians as human shields.”
But residents of Kafranbel and Ma’arat al-Nu’man see things differently. Syrian and Russian bombing has killed some 229 civilians and wounded 727 others in the last month, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) medical charity. Like many across Idlib, they have struggled against extremist groups, but near-daily airstrikes targeting their homes and hospitals represent a much greater threat.
“We do not have anyone representing us in the security council, but Assad does. He has a voice, and we do not. We do not have the voice to say that it is civilians who are dying, and not extremists,” says Darwish.
Tsurkov, who maintains contact with dozens of activists in both towns, says the attacks there foreshadowed a gloomy outlook for the rest of Idlib.
“The regime and Russia claim to be fighting terrorism, but the repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure and in particular towns that have long resisted the jihadists undermines those claims. In reality, the regime and Russia are attempting to terrorise the population of Idlib into submission: no opposition to Assad’s rule is acceptable, even if it secular, civilian and peaceful,” she says.
The fate of Idlib’s 3 million residents now rests on talks between Russia and Turkey, two nations which brokered the last ceasefire in the province. The two are reportedly in talks to bring an end to the fighting, as the United Nations’ deputy humanitarian chief warned that further conflict would “overwhelm all ability to respond” to the humanitarian crisis.
Few in Idlib are holding out hope, however.
“Turkey is concerned with its own issues, and the west has forgotten the civilians, the moderates, the revolutionaries,” says Darwish.
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