Idlib province in northwestern Syria, is the last bastion of resistance to Assad in the war-weary country. It now faces a humanitarian catastrophe.

Idlib province in Syria has long been condemned to underdevelopment, one does not have to look far to see this. The people boast that when the father of Bashar al Assad, Hafez al Assad, first visited Idlib they pelted him with tomatoes. The province has been mistreated ever since.

A shoe placed in the mouth of a statue of the late Syrian President Hafez al Assad, in Idlib province, a historical bastion of dissent against the Baathist regime.
A shoe placed in the mouth of a statue of the late Syrian President Hafez al Assad, in Idlib province, a historical bastion of dissent against the Baathist regime. (AFP)

Six years into the Syrian revolution against the oppressive Assad regime the war may finally be concluding. In areas where Assad has regained land it’s been a pyrrhic victory. The social fabric laid to waste. The fractious and divided opposition has slowly been whittled from the cities and villages across Syria. Yet one last bastion of resistance remains: Idlib.

The situation in Idlib was described to me by a street vendor several weeks ago as “similar to someone waiting for a verdict and has no idea what that verdict will be — execution or a pardon.” This sentiment was widely shared.

The verdict, however, has finally come. The people of Idlib are now being served their sentence. Russian and Syrian planes have started to reign terror on the Idlib region. It seems increasingly likely that the barbarous total war wrought to reclaim other parts of Syria by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad's forces are marching towards a people displaced from the previous efforts to smash them.

The UK Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has said that September was the single deadliest month in the Syrian war in 2017. With more than 3,055 deaths of which 955 were civilian, the coalition warplanes were responsible for more than 70 percent of these casualties. This is in addition to the 465,000 already dead or missing in the war as of March 2017.    

Yet a spirit of resistance pervades these proud people.

When the regime held sway over this territory, locals report that there were hardly any governmental institutions in Idlib and, as a result, hardly any jobs. Developmental aid was throttled by the central authorities. The people built what they could, relying on their communal bonds. It would not be an exaggeration to say that many of the new buildings in the towns and the city of Idlib were built using money from expatriate Syrian communities.

The influx of internally displaced refugees to Idlib over the last several years has become a flood. The most recent example of this is the large influx emanating from Deir Ezzor, due in part to the regime advances on Daesh. A typical pattern involves the government forcefully transporting the civilian population to Idlib province in their ominous green buses.

Green government buses carry residents evacuating from eastern Aleppo, Syria. Defeated rebels and civilians are often placed in these buses and driven to Idlib province. Now Idlib is the last rebel stronghold and there are no more safe havens.
Green government buses carry residents evacuating from eastern Aleppo, Syria. Defeated rebels and civilians are often placed in these buses and driven to Idlib province. Now Idlib is the last rebel stronghold and there are no more safe havens. (AP)

The already neglected Idlib governorate is now groaning and unable to cope with civilians fleeing the clashes. Many are sleeping on the streets while others have been displaced with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. The situation  has become so dire that signs of malnourishment are emerging and the broken infrastructure is unable to cope with newcomers. 

The fate of Idlib as it stands seems to be heading in the same direction as other previously held rebel areas.

The Syrian dream of achieving freedom, civil rights and liberty from a cruel and oppressive regime has given way to a more pressing need—basic survival—no doubt a cold, ruthless calculation by Assad, Russia and Iran in their campaign. The noble aims of the revolution seem today a distant prospect.

The last few years of war have left deep scars and fissures in Syrian society. Every household has a neighbour who is a widow or an orphaned child, a vulnerable group that has become over represented in this region.

Idlib has effectively become the last stand and, for the regime-its dumping ground. And while much of the attention is focused on Syria’s east, the slow motion humanitarian crisis is brewing in Idlib. There are no dumping grounds left to which Syrians can be transported by menacing green buses.

The main group controlling this region is Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), previously an Al Qaeda affiliate. As a result, the international community has started to reconsider the expendability of the province, and with it, its people. 

When HTS took over the Bab al Hawa border crossing, the main supply line into the province, Turkish authorities proceeded to close it, allowing only essential goods into the province. The resulting increase in prices for everyday goods has made life more precarious. It has also opened up a new trade route for the embattled people of the province.

The Bab al Salam border crossing to the north lies in Afrin, controlled by the PKK affiliate YPG, now rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has become a major transiting point. 

The SDF, taking advantage of the humanitarian situation in Idlib, levies a hefty tax on the goods passing through its territory. For many of the people in Idlib, making ends meet and sourcing food has become a daily struggle.   

Local factors have also exacerbated the state of fear and uncertainty of the Syrian people. The conflicting viewpoints among the revolutionaries themselves is one of the greatest examples of this. A recent proposal for a civil administration was put forward by some Syrian academics in Idlib, recommending a shift from military management of civil affairs. But it remains to be seen whether this will be successful given past failures. Past promises and failures amongst rebel groups have left people disenchanted and sceptical of revolutionary rhetoric.

Its difficult to know what will happen in the fight for Idlib. Turkey may well see a mass exodus from the region, placing further strain on Turkey's finances. 

There are more than 2 million people now living in the province — their miserable living conditions require a permanent solution that allows them to live their lives without fear. That is looking increasingly unlikely.

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