Friday, 4 May 2018

Idlib offers uncertain sanctuary to Syria’s defeated rebels

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 'Abdullah al-Hafi endured a years-long siege and months of intense bombardment in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta before boarding a bus with his family to join thousands of others in an exodus to Idlib. ”Your choice was die in Ghouta, or leave for Idlib,” said the 35-year-old from his new home in a village in the province about 300km north-west of Syria’s capital. “Our house was destroyed. We lived in the basement without food or clean water. Before we left for Idlib we lived in hell,” he added. “It was difficult to leave our lands. But it’s a new life.” 

 A supporter of the opposition that rose up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Mr Hafi feared retribution from the government as regime forces closed in and took control of Eastern Ghouta following fighting in which at least 1,500 were killed, according the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights. He is one of more than 70,000 rebels and civilians who made a similar calculation, fleeing the besieged enclave — the last rebel holdout near the capital — with the few belongings they could carry.

 Their departure was part of an evacuation deal that fitted a pattern repeated numerous times over the past two years as Mr Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has steadily reclaimed control of much of the country through the tactics of siege and bombardment. The vast majority of the evacuees have ended up in Idlib, which has become a dumping ground for defeated rebels, their families and supporters. Many are stuck in tents in sprawling, crowded camps near the Turkish border where residents complain of lawlessness, crime and lack of services.  “After the terrible scenes in Eastern Ghouta, many Syrians in Idlib are asking themselves ‘Are we next?’” said Mark Schnellbaecher, Middle East director at the International Rescue Committee.

 Idlib’s population has swelled from about 1.5m before the war to 2.6m, making it the largest populous area controlled by rebels. The province is regularly hit by Syrian and Russian air strikes, and bombs have struck hospitals, further degrading the poor medical care available. But for many in Idlib, with their country torn apart by war, there are few other options. “They know that if the situation deteriorates [further] then there is nowhere else for them to run,” says Mr Schnellbaecher.

 Rajaai Ibrahim, a teacher, arrived in Idlib from the town of Madaya in western Syria where a government siege pushed many to the brink of starvation. “Poverty is everywhere in Idlib,” said Mr Ibrahim. He was happy to leave behind the appalling conditions in Madaya, where images of undernourished children and reports of besieged families living on grass and weeds drew the world’s attention in 2016. But now he is considering packing up again and heading for Afrin, a border town seized this year by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, where he believes he will be safer.
 Three of the armed groups operating in Idlib recently announced a pact to stop the infighting that has often prevented the delivery and distribution of much-needed aid. But previous deals have collapsed. “Instead of protecting people, they’re killing each other,” said Mr Ibrahim. Highlighting the unstable situation in Idlib, the IRC said two of its employees had been killed in a car-bomb attack in Dana on Thursday — including a security guard who had sought refuge in the province with his family. Mr Hafi holds out hope that a deal can be struck for Turkey to take control of Idlib and at least stall a government offensive. Ankara has co-operated with Russia and Iran in brokering peace and has a base in one corner of Idlib as part of the de-escalation monitoring process. But Mr Assad has been clear that he wants to retake all of Syria. “Our country is like a game of chess. Everyone has their move,” says Mr Hafi. “Other countries make every decision in Syria.'

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