Idlib, Syria: Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a football stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.
Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.
“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime” of President Bashar Assad, said Okba Al Rahoum, manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.
On a rare visit to Idlib province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often-violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to Al Qaida.
In the decade since Syria’s war began, Assad’s forces crushed communities that revolted against him, and millions of people fled to new lives of uncertainty - in neighboring countries, Europe and pockets of Syria outside of Al Assad’s grip, including the rebel-held northwest.
The Syrian leader has made it clear that these people don’t fit into his conception of victory, and few are likely to return as long as he remains in power, making the fate of the displaced one of the thorniest pieces of the war’s unfinished business.
“The question is: What is the future for these people?” said Mark Cutts, United Nations deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. “They can’t continue living forever in muddy fields under olive trees by the side of the road.”
Throughout the war, the rebel-held northwest became the destination of last resort for Syrians with nowhere else to go. The government bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.
Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.
Humanitarian organizations working to hold back hunger and infectious diseases, including Covid-19, have struggled to get enough aid into the area. And that effort could become more difficult if Russia, Assad’s closest international ally, blocks a UN resolution up for renewal this summer to keep one border crossing with the northwest open for international aid.
Evolved from the Nusra Front
Further complicating the international quandary over aiding Idlib is the dominant role of the militant rebel group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, or HTS.
The group evolved from the Nusra Front, a jihadi organisation that declared its allegiance to Al Qaida early in the war and distinguished itself by its copious use of suicide bombers against government and civilian targets.
The United States and the United Nations consider HTS a terrorist organisation, even though its leaders publicly distanced themselves from Al Qaida in 2016 and have since played down their jihadi roots. Those efforts were clear around Idlib, where flags, insignia and graffiti announcing the group’s presence were absent, even though residents often referred to it cautiously as “the group that controls the area.”
Unlike Daesh, the terrorist group that fought both rebels and the government to control an expanse of territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border, HTS is not pushing for the immediate creation of an Islamic state and does not field morality police officers to enforce strict social codes.
During a tour of the group’s front-line positions, a military spokesman who went by the nom de guerre Abu Khalid Al Shami took reporters down a dirt staircase hidden in a bunker to a long, underground tunnel leading to a network of trenches and firing positions manned by fighters.
Asked how the group differed from its predecessor, the Al Qaida franchise, he cast it as part of the wider rebel movement seeking to topple Assad.
To administer the area, HTS helped establish the Syrian Salvation Government, which has more than 5,000 employees and 10 ministries, including justice, education and agriculture, administration head Ali Keda said in an interview. It is not internationally recognised and struggles to meet the area’s overwhelming needs.
Critics dismiss the administration as a civilian facade that allows a banned group to interact with foreign organisations; they accuse it and HTS of detaining critics and shutting down activities seen in conflict with its strict Islamic views.
Last month, Rania Kisar, the Syrian American director of SHINE, an education organisation, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages. The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Kisar said.
A spokesman for the administration, Melhem Al Ahmad, confirmed it had closed the office “until further notice” after deeming Kisar’s words “an insult to public sentiment and morals.” A spokesman for HTS said aid and media organizations were free to work inside “a revolutionary framework” that respects norms and does not overstep what is permitted.
An advance by government forces last year increased the pressure on Idlib’s already strained services.
At an Idlib city maternity hospital, Dr. Ikram Haboush recalled delivering three or four babies per day before the war. Now, because so many doctors have fled and there are so few facilities, she often oversees 15 deliveries per day. The hospital is crowded and lacks the means to handle difficult cases.
“Sometime we have babies born prematurely, but we have no place to put them and by the time we can transfer them to Turkey, the child is dead,” she said.
Since last year, a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.