Rebel resistance melts away as Syrian troops advance on Idlib
In a recent video, activist Hadi-al-Abdullah addressed opposition brigades across Idlib, asking for an explanation: "If there is a deal, let us know, let the civilians know so we can know where to flee. Do not leave us oblivious."
The video was uploaded by the well-known figure as government forces re-seized dozens of villages east of Hama in the past 20 days, with locally based rebel brigades putting up little or no resistance. According to activists, FSA brigades withdrew from their bases without fighting, leaving civilians with no options but to flee.
"Civilians are just shocked. They don't understand what is happening. There is a sense of ambiguity. We know that there is something going on, some kind of a deal to empty certain parts of Idlib, but it seems like no one wants to tell us," Hadi says.
After the video was shared, Hadi told me that he received explanations from brigade leaders. They claimed that after their fight with the Nusra Front, they were left with no ability to defend themselves or their military bases. The rural parts of Idlib and Hama have been subjected to a continuous battle between rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra.
|Hundreds of cars are moving up north every day. They load up whatever the car can carry. Furniture, blankets, food, along with their family members, with no return date in mind
Hadi himself had been the target of several assassination attempts by Nusra following his critical reporting on them. The last attempt resulted in the death of his colleague, Khalid al-Issa. Hadi underwent months of recovery in Turkey.
Idlib has been facing a cruel military campaign since late December. More than 280 civilians have been killed, according to local reports. Hospitals, including Al Salam in Maaret al-Noman, were targeted.
"Hundreds of cars are moving up north every day. They load up whatever the car can carry. Furniture, blankets, food, along with their family members, with no return date in mind," said Hadi.
"I went yesterday to report on the issue. I cried as I watched hundreds of families with nowhere to sleep in the freezing cold. Those who already have a tent are considered the lucky ones, and according to our latest estimate, we are dealing with more than 100,000 refugees in urgent need of a shelter."
Relief from aid organizations is severely restricted. With the exception of IHH and the Turkish Red Cross, local relief groups are operating with very limited resources.
"Local relief organisations' resources are extremely limited and can't cover the mass movement," Hadi said. "Also, it's important here to note that these organisations' resources were already drained by displacement from different parts of the country. The Idlib countryside was already packed with internally displaced Syrians from different parts of the country. For the past two years, it has been the destination for all forcibly displaced activists and civilians.
"Rural Idlib shelters people from all over the country - Damascus, Homs, Hama city, Latakia. And today, those who have already been put in buses and moved across the country to be resettled in Idlib are fleeing for their lives again, but, this time, with far less resources as they already lost everything on their journey here, their new shelter."
When fleeing is not an option
For thousands of civilians, another internal displacement is the only option, as the Turkish borders are now tightly sealed. Dozens of civilians have died trying to cross illegally since 2014.
Yasser Tarraf, an activist from the town of Has, told me that it costs between $800 and $3,000 per person to cross to Turkey, with the cost varying by how risky the voyage is. But even the cheapest and most dangerous routes seem impossible for most families.
|Poverty and lack of opportunities for refugees in neighbouring Turkey has left many Syrians preferring death in their houses over the fatigue of becoming refugees in Turkey
The main option now for displaced Syrians is to move to the far north, to camps on the Turkish borders.
"People are moving from the worst to the less-bad," Yasser said.
The large amount of cash demanded by smugglers and the country's impenetrable borders aren't the only things holding back Syrians from crossing into Turkey. The struggle, for many Syrians, doesn't end on the other side of the frontier.
I spoke with Maha, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Has. Does she and her family plan to go to Turkey to survive the military campaign in Idlib? "Poverty and lack of opportunities for refugees in neighbouring Turkey has left many Syrians preferring death in their houses over the fatigue of becoming refugees in Turkey."
Like thousands of other civilians, the 34-year-old teacher and her family have no plan. They're waiting to see what happens. "We are mentally exhausted. We sleep every night not knowing if the government forces will be on our doorsteps."
Like Hadi, Maha doesn't understand why rebel forces aren't fighting back; why they're giving up their bases so easily. “We don't know what is happening. The only thing we know is that it's not up to them, nor us anymore. It's up to the countries that back them."
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the initial stages of the revolution. She later became a photojournalist with Reuters where she covered the ongoing conflict.
She is currently based in New York City where she is a researcher and commentator on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs and is completing an MA at NYU. Her work has been published in major outlets including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and New Republic.
Follow her on Twitter: @loubnamrie