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12 February 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:11pm

In Idlib, Syrian civilians refuse to let the ideals of the revolution die

Caught between the Assad regime and Islamist extremists, some are still coming out to protest. 

By Bahia Mardini

Saraqeb is just one of many cities, towns and villages in Idlib, a north-western province of Syria on the border with Turkey. Its location means that it has long held strategic importance: in the past, Idlib was a step on the Silk Road, a stop off point for traders coming from Anatolia and Europe. Today, it connects cities like Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib City. 

Before I was forced to leave Syria, I visited Saraqeb on several occasions. I was struck by how friendly the people were (as well as how good the food was). However, after seven long years of war, life in Saraqeb is beyond anything the human mind can imagine. Russian airstrikes in support of Assad continue to target houses, markets and even hospitals. The regime too is targeting the city: at the beginning of February, civilians were struck by deadly chlorine gas, leaving at least 20 dead, and it also has reportedly used sarin gas. The footage of children suffocating, and people screaming as they choke from fumes is hard to escape. The regime does not care how young their victims are, or whether they are too frail to hide. Instead, it deliberately targets civilians in order to strike fear in those it seeks to control.

If this bombardment were not enough, Saraqeb’s civilians have also been caught up in the bitter and ongoing clashes between rebel groups on the ground. This includes extremist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has evolved from the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which took the town by force.

Saraqeb in 2012, one year after the protests began

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This March will mark seven years since the war in Syria began. Half a million have been killed and many millions have been displaced. To us Syrians, they are more than just numbers – they are our friends, family and neighbours. The other week, I learned that three members of my own family were killed in airstrikes in Idlib. Sadly, there is nothing unique about my case: most Syrians have lost loved ones. 

As a journalist and human rights activist, I myself was forced to flee the Assad regime with my young son, after we faced threats and persecution from the regime’s security forces. While I am truly grateful that we are safe and alive, I know that many others have not been so fortunate.

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The Assad regime has characterised itself as the only bulwark against the terrorists, as it refers to all rebels indiscriminately. The rebels point out that the Assad regime itself terrorises civilians, but must also face up to the fact that the threat from terrorism and extremist militias is growing and transforming. In reality, civilians continue to suffer, both from the rule of Assad, and the threat of terrorism – two forces as callous as each other.

Syrians protesting in Idlib in 2011

Syria is a diverse country, where those of different faiths and ethnicities have lived together for centuries. Growing up in Damascus, it was common to have friends from different faiths. We came together to mark each other’s holidays, gathering in mosques and churches alike. For example, although my family is Muslim, every Christmas we went to Bab Tuma, an ancient Christian neighbourhood near our home, to see the Christmas lights and hear the songs. Most Syrians are moderate Muslims who believe in God and want to live in peace.

The butchery, suffering and sectarianism we see today is especially devastating, considering the conflict was rooted in a peaceful call for democracy. In 2011, as the Arab Spring spread across the region, protestors took to the streets in Syria calling for civil rights and an end to harassment by the security services. The Assad family had ruled the country as a dictatorship for decades. Those original protestors demanded peace and human rights. They wanted democracy, the establishment of a pluralistic democratic system and the elimination of the security state.

Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, Bashar al-Assad sought to crush the uprising through a brutal crackdown which included killing and imprisoning hundreds of protesters. Then he did something else, that would prove far more strategic – he released a large number of jihadists from prison. From then on, he claimed that peaceful protestors were “jihadis” colluding alongside terrorists.

The regime duly heightened its already ruthless response. This included carrying out mass arrests, openly firing at civilians and using sexual violence and torture in the form of electrification, burnings and beatings. Often, children were targeted. Security forces would kidnap anyone accused of taking part in demonstrations and detain them in the country’s secret prisons, under the most inhumane of conditions. Nobody knows the true numbers of those harmed and kidnapped. I know mothers who still wonder what has happened to their children.

Simultaneously it was very difficult to report on what was going on. Journalists like me were threatened with physical violence. Many of my former colleagues were attacked. In the absence of free speech, the regime tried to cover up the human rights abuses it was committing and spout out its own propaganda that the uprisings reflected violent extremism. It was due to this exceptional violence in response to civic activism that unrest escalated into war.

Over the succeeding years, though, the nightmare described by the regime’s propaganda became true. Terrorist organisations flocked to the region. A whole host of rebel groups began to operate.

Ordinary people found themselves caught between the Assad regime, rebel groups and the rise of Islamist terrorists like Daesh, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Over the years that followed, the original protestors had to watch as these terrorists hijacked our calls for change, falsely claiming the revolution had symbolised a call for extremism and using it as an opportunity to try to implement their own poisonous agenda. In reality, they were just as opposed to the principles of the revolution as Assad.

Islamist fighters shortly after the capture of Idlib in 2015

The extremists may operate under different names, but they share a primitive vision of Islam, including implementing strict Sharia law and building a pan-Islamic “caliphate” or state. Many of these terrorist groups also share similar roots, which can be traced back to Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the early 2000s. According to their reactionary and highly distorted interpretation of Islam, anyone who fails to comply with their strict vision is subject to extreme violence and death, resulting in the repression of both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. 

The most notorious of these groups is Daesh, also known as Islamic State. Daesh’s hypocrisy towards the unlucky populations under its grip knew no bounds: its fighters stole resources, and looted archaeological treasures, but watched civilians starve. Its propaganda machine pumped out videos of militants handing out food and medical supplies, but on the ground its fighters simultaneously carried out public executions and raped young girls. Daesh controlled Syrians by acting as the judge, jury and executioner. Not only that, but it seized the country’s economic resources, including its oil fields.

Since the start of the revolution, control over Idlib has shifted back and forth, with power exchanging hands between the regime, rebel forces and groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). A Salafi-Jihadi militant group with strong ties to Al-Qaeda, HTS only emerged as a fighting force early last year. It was effectively a rebranding exercise, to reflect a merger between various terrorist factions linked to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), the Ansar al-Din Front and Jaysh al-Sunna. By pooling their soldiers and weapons into one repugnant pot, the militants were able to capture Idlib City in the summer of 2017. HTS is hated by locals, but its leaders have managed to build support by forming coalitions with other terrorist and rebel groups, including Daesh defectors, and foreign fighters from other Arab states. Its modus operandi is mass arrests, murder and violence. 

In Saraqeb, local residents had tried to establish some basic order by setting up their own elected council. HTS militants took it over. Although the organisation had tried to court popularity by positioning itself as a pro-revolution and anti-Assad force, its real sentiments were symbolised by the militants publicly stamping on a pro-revolutionary flag. Freedom to protest was equally quashed: militants responded to an anti-HTS demonstration by detaining worshippers at a mosque at gunpoint, and firing at civilians. Just as with the Assad regime, to criticise HTS is to fear imprisonment– so much so that Idlib’s Al-‘Aqab prison has become a symbol of HTS power. This holds a heavy irony, since under Assad, prisons in the country were also symbols of repression.

HTS has tried another Daesh tactic – using its grip on the economy to gain political power. It established its own “civil department” to oversee the provision of electricity and food, and militants also took over a food market by force. The paradox is of course that while HTS hands out food in exchange for power, it has blocked external agencies from delivering desperately-needed aid. Its militants have seized aid convoys and imposed significant restrictions on humanitarian organisations. This includes the confiscation of offices and warehouses, with reports this has stopped more than 50,000 families from receiving humanitarian aid, including food and blankets. The HTS commander, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, declared looted money would be returned to its rightful hands, prisoners would be freed and displaced civilians would be returned to their villages. These promises were of course never fulfilled.

A Syrian family flees shelling in a town in Idlib province, June 2013

Idlib now stands as the last rebel-held province outside Assad’s control, and “victory” over the area is being prized above any human cost. As the cradle of many of the early anti-Assad protests, Idlib’s civilians had called for democracy from the start of the revolution. These protests were not only peaceful, but cross-sectarian – uniting Syrians in a common desire for political freedom.

Today, Idlib is one of the most dangerous parts of the country. Last year, representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a deal establishing four “de-escalation zones” to bring about a ceasefire and allow in much needed aid. Despite Idlib being one of these zones, Russia is continuing to relentlessly bomb the area in its support for Assad. The deal has been broken by both the regime and by Islamist rebels.

This means Idlib is now facing one of the worst humanitarian crises the region has ever seen. Children are malnourished. The daily airstrikes destroy what little infrastructure remains. In an ultimate act of barbarity, Assad has also used chemical weapons on his own people, causing victims to foam at the mouth before dying. Families have nowhere safe to hide – my own relatives were struck by shelling last week as they went to buy vegetables, bread and candles. Siege tactics have led to mass starvation: hundreds of thousands are deprived of food and clean drinking water, leading to yet more disease and death. Each day, dozens and dozens are killed. 

A boy being rescued from a destroyed house in Saraqeb, 2013

Impossible though it may seem, there are still attempts to hope in this hell on earth. Idlib’s residents are increasingly coming together to publicly reject HTS. There are reports of demonstrations demanding an end to violence, with protests taking place in Saraqeb, as well as the nearby town of Maarrat al-Nu’man, which also has a strong anti-Assad movement. Local civilians frequently take part in huge demonstrations against HTS, chanting slogans of freedom. These activists know that there is a great deal at stake: they face being killed, arrested and imprisoned. On the other hand, they know that if they do not resist HTS, they risk losing any hope of democracy in the future. These demonstrations are powerful evidence that civilians are determined to see their towns freed from terrorism of any form. 

Without a trustworthy government, in the hardest times of all, civil society is stepping up to the plate. This includes the NGOs trying to get aid to the one million civilians in need of medical supplies, food and water, and the No Lost Generation scheme helping children catch up on the education missed during years of war. Organisations are helping to empower women and teach them vocational skills. Such groups recognise Syria’s future will be stronger if all minorities, faiths and genders play their part.

Although Syria is thousands of miles away, there is a lot that communities across the world can do to help. First, the humanitarian situation is so dire that help is needed to prevent disease and starvation escalating among those still trapped in the region. This includes the important work of volunteers like the White Helmets, who rescue those trapped in bombed-out buildings, and the important work of internationally recognised aid organisations such as those part of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Despite efforts to block aid they are doing what they can to save children, women and the elderly stuck in this ‘no-man’s land’. Second, it is essential that the international community remains united with those in Syria who want a democratic solution, free from Assad and free from terrorism. That is why we need the international community to continue to apply pressure on Russia to cease its bombing and its support for Assad, so that we can work towards a peaceful political settlement.

Maarrat al-Nu’man, 2018

Idlib is therefore proof, and an important lesson for the world. The fact that activists in Idlib have continued to reject those who oppress them and stand up for liberal democratic values is in many ways astonishing –and they deserve our respect and solidarity. The revolution started with a simple call for democracy and ordinary Syrians still believe in this.

Syria is my home. It’s where I was born, where I went to school and where I began my career as a journalist and human rights activist. For people like me who have campaigned for change for so many years, we will not give up until civilians are safe. The last thing these people want or deserve is yet more violence and that is why innocent civilians must continue to be our priority. It is also why democracy must remain the ultimate prize for anyone who cares about Syria.

Bahia Mardini is a journalist and human rights campaigner. She was an information media consultant in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and was the director of the media office of the opposition delegation in the peace negotiations in Geneva 2012. Since fleeing her home in Syria, she is now based in the UK, where she is a founder of Syrian House, an organisation dedicated to helping Syrians in the UK access information and support.