A new government in Idlib tries to forge local alliances – amid the lingering danger of Russian bombing – to govern a whopping four million Syrians, the majority of whom are internally displaced.

The city centre in Idlib becomes a hub of activity at sundown with people from all walks of life converging around the clock tower for shopping and socialising.
The city centre in Idlib becomes a hub of activity at sundown with people from all walks of life converging around the clock tower for shopping and socialising. (TRTWorld)

IDLIB CITY, Syria — “I’m afraid we have to end this meeting now,’’ said a rushed and exhausted Mohammad al Shaikh. 

It was two in the afternoon in Idlib city, where Shaikh was meeting tribal elders from Hama province, a one-hour drive away from the Turkish border. Fifteen men with sunburnt faces sat on two tables facing each other, with Shaikh and his associates seated in the centre.

It had been a friendly exchange between Idlib’s newest leader of the ominously named Syrian Salvation government and the men whose support he desperately needs to execute his plans. And the tribal elders were well aware of their importance.

“If you want to come to a place and lead then you need to have legitimacy with the people, the tribes, the community and the families,” said a middle-aged elder with jet black hair, whose eyes were made more intense by his red headscarf.

It was at this moment that Shaikh asked, politely, to end the meeting.

“They’re telling me there are planes in the air. Listen. We have to go,” he said.

A fragile de-escalation zone

As Shaikh was meeting the tribal elders, suspected Russian fighter jets were honing in on a target a few kilometres away. Sixty-four people were killed in the attack on a street in Atarib – a border town between Idlib and the western Aleppo governorates.

The attack threatened to break a fragile ceasefire, which was the result of an agreement reached in Astana between Turkey, Russia and Iran on May 4. The idea was to set up four so-called de-escalation zones across Syria, including Idlib.

Turkish soldiers crossed the border in Hatay into Idlib on 13 October.  Media reports say their mission was to build at least 14 checkposts in Idlib to monitor the ceasefire. And Erdogan also stated the PKK-linked YPG terror group in neighbouring Afrin was a concern for Turkish forces. 

The YPG – flush with US weapons and air support – made significant gains across northern Syria, capturing tens of thousands of kilometres from retreating Daesh fighters. US support for the YPG had continued, despite Daesh’s defeat in Raqqa and elsewhere. It had raised Turkey’s concerns about the YPG attacking Idlib, further extending the terror group's reach along the border.

"The truth is evident. Our strategic partner, the US, carried out the Raqqa operation with the YPG despite our objections,”said a disappointed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For months, he’d been raising the alarm against the YPG with his American NATO allies, but Erdogan’s words were met with silence.

“The Americans said the YPG and the PKK were not the same. The US delivered more than 3,500 truckloads of weapons to the region. We know where they were used," he said.

Converging interests

“There could be a more dangerous project of dividing Syria. For this very reason, our task is to revive the Syrian revolution by giving it the momentum it used to have in its first days,” Shaikh told TRT World at an undisclosed location soon after his meeting with the tribal elders. Our journalists have been among the few international teams able to enter Idlib city since 2014.

Our trip had been made possible with the willful retreat of Hayat Tahrir al Sham – formerly called Al Nusra Front and later Jabhat Fateh al Sham, which had been in control of Idlib since 2016. Despite controlling the area, the group had largely stayed clear of providing locals with essential services.

It had led to the rise of neighbourhood or local councils. They worked much like co-operatives  elsewhere, from collecting trash to supplying water to installing and maintaining community-run generators.

Muhammad Mahfuz Qalaa, who was an engineer before the Syrian war started in 2011, had become one of the local council leaders as the regime cut off essential public services.

“During the revolution and people started to migrate to northern Syria, especially to towns across Idlib,” Qalaa told TRT World

"My area’s infrastructure was built to handle only 20,000 people. But now there are one hundred and 20,000 people living there,” a frail-looking Qalaa said.

The marks from suspected Russian air attacks still dot many buildings in Idlib city.
The marks from suspected Russian air attacks still dot many buildings in Idlib city. (TRTWorld)

Idlib province in northern Syria had an estimated population of one million Syrians. But now an estimated four million people are residing there. Many are escaping the regime and YPG-held territory to Idlib city, which is one of the last remaining major urban centres left in the hands of the opposition.

“There is a serious need to renovate the infrastructure including the public water system, the sewage system, waste management and the electricity grid,” Qalaa told us, adding there were very limited resources available to do this.

“Hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in Idlib are jobless. There is no income. We have to work on creating income sources for this poor people,” said Shaikh. 

He seemed relaxed despite the suspected Russian attack on Atarib earlier, which had forced his early exit from the meeting with the tribal elders.  

“Of course it is a very hard mission to be carried out by the Salvation Government. Our work is born in a very critical phase in terms of political situation and services. I mean the global political reaction to the Syrian cause. There is a kind of push to end the Syrian revolution and shore up the Assad regime,” he said.

The regime of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad had been making steady progress against enemies of all stripes. It had retaken territory from Daesh as well as from Syrian opposition groups. With the help of its Iranian and Russian-backed forces, Assad had exhausted countless ammunition halos, killings hundreds of thousands on his way to victory. So-called “siege and surrender” tactics had enabled Assad to starve out any remaining opposition to his brutal rule. And his regime had smartly used international reaction to pictures of starving children to generate a global outcry which then would be used by Assad and his allies to force the surrender of opposition groups in besieged areas.

It had happened in places like Madaya and Zabadani and had silenced what had remained of the opposition fight in Aleppo. Millions of people had been displaced and the majority had made their way to the remaining opposition pockets in Azaz and Idlib.

And neither were these pockets of resistance were not spared. The attack in Atarib earlier that day was one of hundreds of aerial attacks carried out by suspected Russian warplanes across Idlib. Markets, schools and hospitals were bombed. It had forced people to take essential services underground – literally.

“Before the (de-escalation zone) ceasefire came into effect, there was heavy shelling on Idlib. 

Hospitals were heavily targeted. We had to move locations four times due to the continuous targeting of medical facilities. We are now underground and surrounded by earth embankments and sand sacks,” Hussain Yasin told TRT World from a location inside Idlib city. He was nervous about sharing details of the location for fear of being identified.

Several dozen health facilities have been bombed by the regime and its Russian allies in Idlib, forcing hospital emergency services to go underground.
Several dozen health facilities have been bombed by the regime and its Russian allies in Idlib, forcing hospital emergency services to go underground. (TRTWorld)

“The Russians use spies to locate a hospital and then bunker buster missiles, that turn these underground facilities into compact graveyards’’, he said. As he spoke the doctor was interrupted by a rush of stretchers being brought into the emergency room. “Can you please step aside”, he asked us politely and then rushed in their direction.

“Most of the cases we treat are either gunshot or shrapnel wounds”, said Dr Mohammad Abrash, the medical director of the undisclosed and underground Idlib Central Hospital. The facility was being funding and supplied by the Syrian American Medical Society, even then there was a shortage of almost everything.

“We need beds, we need medicine, but most important we need a proper facility. Look at our working conditions. And the number of people being bought here keeps on increasing”, said a concerned Abrash.

“The first thing is to be establish security and safety”, said Shaikh, the leader of the Syrian Salvation government.  “We want to restore the security through the Ministry of Interior affairs. Seven years have passed without security. Cars are without tags. People are without IDs. So our main concern now is to restore security. Justice comes after security. Any government has to establish security and justice.”

Educational institutions are getting back to life with more and more students enrolling for various courses.
Educational institutions are getting back to life with more and more students enrolling for various courses. (TRTWorld)

Shaikh was elected through the local councils soon after Turkish troops entered Idlib. Now meeting us in the shadow of fighter jets hovering the skies over Idlib, Shaikh was aware that his fortunes were inevitably tied to Turkey’s interests in northern Syria.

“We will succeed if we build a strategic alliance which binds the pro-Syrian revolution people on one side and the Turkish government along with its people on the other,” he said.

Source: TRT World