THE BATTLE FOR IDLIB HEATS UP
By Donnelly McCleland
The Syrian military and its allies have begun a long, slow and violent campaign to recapture the last province in the country still under opposition control, where the government has gradually cornered rebels, extremists and civilians alike. A victory in Idlib province, in Syria’s northwest, would help the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his allies Russia and Iran consolidate what increasingly looks like an assured victory in an eight-year-old civil war. But it would almost certainly come at a high cost in life and property. (The New York Times)
Last rebel stronghold
Idlib is one of the 14 provinces (governorates) of Syria. It is situated in north-western Syria on the border with Turkey and is highly strategic as it straddles major highways running south from Aleppo to Hama and the capital, Damascus, and west to the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia. Before the war, the province had a population of 1.5 million people. The UN estimates that some 3 million people live in Idlib today, nearly half of whom have already been forced to flee their homes multiple times. During the course of the war, Idlib became a ‘repository’ for opposition fighters and supporters who were bussed there after the government recaptured their territory and gave them a choice: surrender (and receive amnesty) or go to Idlib. As a result, there are many people from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Daraa, as well as a high concentration of foreign fighters. Almost half of the civilians in Idlib come from other previously-rebel-held parts of Syria from which they either fled or were evacuated.
The province is not controlled by a single group, but rather by a number of rival factions commanding up to an estimated 70,000 fighters. The dominant force is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance linked to al-Qaeda. HTS controls key locations across Idlib, including the provincial capital and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. HTS is designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN, which estimates that it and an al-Qaeda have at least 10,000 fighters in Idlib, including many foreigners. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) is the second most powerful alliance. It was formed in 2018 by rebel factions wanting to counter HTS. They include the big hard-line Islamist groups of Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Brigades, as well as others fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Many analysts believe that after the battles for Homs, Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa, this will be the last major conflict in Syria. Since many of the fighters in this region are those who chose not to surrender, it is assumed that the battle will be particularly fierce as there is nowhere else to retreat to, and they will potentially be making their ‘final stand’.
What’s at stake
For months, mainstream media outlets have maintained that ‘moderate’ rebels in Idlib were valiantly holding out against a ‘ruthless regime’ and that a ‘slaughter’ was imminent. This familiar narrative echoes those that were told for the battles of Aleppo, Ghouta and elsewhere. Few journalists stayed to interview civilians who had endured months and years under opposition control after their neighbourhoods came under government control again. They did not report on the food deprivation civilians had faced at the hands of opposition forces (many facilities were uncovered where opposition forces had hoarded donated food and medicines), or the forced recruitments, imprisonment, executions or harsh interrogations many had faced at the hands of these ‘moderate’ rebels. Few reported on the repeated efforts of the Syrian government and Russian forces to open civilian corridors to allow people to escape the bombardment of their neighbourhoods, or how civilians were prevented from using these corridors by opposition snipers who did not want to lose their ‘human shields’.
Many of the opposition groups in Idlib have pursued these same tactics. They have also created stable income sources in various forms: taxes that they collect from the population that is under their control; transit fees that they charge to go through the checkpoints that surround the Idlib province and separate it from the areas controlled by the Syrian army; and dictating the fuel prices and the sale of other basic necessities. They also resort to robbery and looting of homes in the region. In several towns in the Idlib province, residents report daily robberies at gun point and attacks on passers-by, which have led many of the residents to abandon their homes and move to more remote areas.
If Idlib is taken by the government, it would leave the rebels with a few pockets of territory scattered across the country and effectively signal their ‘final defeat’.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
A small team from INcontext, together with local Christian contacts, recently visited Syria. They travelled, unhindered, from Damascus to Aleppo, via Homs and Hama, and entered a number of these regions previously under opposition control and subsequently liberated by government forces. These neighbourhoods had clearly faced heavy bombardment, and the devastation in some areas was almost total, but life was returning to relative normality in surrounding areas, now that the opposition had surrendered or relocated to Idlib. Despite a number of military checkpoints, there was freedom of movement and goods were being transported along major routes to various cities and towns. There was very much a sense that Syrians long for an end to the war and an opportunity to rebuild the nation that they love.
Much to the surprise of the INcontext team, they were welcomed as Christians at every checkpoint and there was a genuine goodwill towards and respect for people from the Church. It became clear that Syrian believers have been lights in the darkness of the war. They have maintained their witness as peacemakers and have offered assistance to all in need, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Christians, despite being few in number, have been relevant in a time of great need and darkness in this hurting nation. They are also prepared to be the answer to many people’s prayers for the rebuilding of their nation.
The team visited a Christian town near the border of Idlib and listened to people’s accounts of the war and of the many rockets fired at their town by opposition forces (an equivalent of one for every square metre). Yet not a single church gathering was cancelled, and believers continued to reach out to those in their community who do not yet know the Lord. They did not bemoan their circumstances or speak badly of any of those involved in the conflict, and acknowledged the Lord’s sovereignty and faithfulness throughout.
Syrian believers who have remained in Syria throughout the war, and new believers who have come to faith in refugee camps and nations of refuge, all have a part to play in these remaining days of the war and in the rebuilding efforts thereafter. But their lives and example also have a role to play in the larger, global Church – there is much that believers around the world can learn from these faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
- For a final and decisive end to the war
- For the protection of civilians caught in the conflict
- For believers to continue to be a light in the midst of the darkness