Aleppo: A View from Idlib

These days, Idlib residents all have their eyes fixed on the sky following the fighter jets heading north to strike Aleppo. The air strikes destroyed Al-Quds hospital and the infrastructure in Aleppo. Local residents are fearful of a looming war in Idlib that will have the same fate as Aleppo.

Abu-Jud, a local Idlib resident who has four little children under the age of 13 says, “Each time they go to school my heart falls into my shoes and I feel terrified. I was never terrified by the sounds of aircraft, but I now fear more than ever for my children as we live in the highest floor of our building.”

Everyone listens to the early warnings by residents who use walkie talkies to track the course of aircrafts from takeoff and back to their bases. The opposition observers and residents know that fighter jets launch from Hamimim base—the base used by the Russian air force.

“Yes, we know that these aircraft hovering above our heads are on their way to strike Aleppo, but we are helpless. We are only left with prayers. I escaped to Idlib and I am afraid of being killed here as well. Turkey has closed its doors with no safe spots left in the opposition-controlled territories,” says Ahmed, who recently managed to flee Aleppo to Idlib. “I don’t think that the situation would be better in regime-controlled areas. They will force me to bear arms and fight with my fellow Syrians against the other parties, and all know the fate of fighters,” he adds.

Idlib is an over-populated city, with unofficial estimates putting the population at more than half a million, mostly displaced persons fleeing the suburbs of Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia. Idlib is under an interim truce in response to the opposition truce in the Shiite regime-loyalist villages of Kafreya and Fouaa. However, the Assad regime breaks the truce every once in a while and the recent events in Aleppo are making the city feel the imminent danger.

All believe that Idlib will be next as the regime gains control over Aleppo. According to activist Nour Hallaaq, the Russians, Iranians, and Assad will turn their attention to Idlib after demolishing Aleppo. Hallaaq is anxiously following the developments. He posts on Facebook and calls for peace activists all over the world to come to Syria and head to Aleppo to stop the ongoing massacres. “I got the idea from the US activist, Rachel Corrie, who defied the Israelis who attacked her and caused a huge media traction forcing the occupiers to stop,” he said. “Iran on the ground and Russia from the sky are waging a genocidal war against us and adopting a policy of total devastation on targeted areas. They can then [easily] enter these areas,” he added.

Many civilians are wary of the February 26 truce, extending from Ghouta at the outskirts of the capital Damascus to the Syrian coasts. The truce enabled the regime to concentrate its forces on Aleppo without having to reopen battle fronts in other areas. The truce will not benefit Syrians unless it covers civilian areas. Nour confirms the regime is trying, together with its allies, to win the key areas one after the other. The truce is useless if it does not include all of the opposition areas. In order to protect civilians and ensure the success of political negotiations, it is important to focus on heavily concentrated residential areas like the city of Aleppo.

The main residential areas are currently in Aleppo, Idlib, and Damascus suburbs, with unofficial estimates exceeding more than four million residents across these areas. Many are concentrated in the countryside of Idlib, along the Syrian-Turkish border, where large camps are sheltering tens of thousands in the cities of Harem, Silqin, and Darkoush.  Syrians established these camps after the start of Russian strikes on opposition-held areas late last year, forcing the displacement of numerous people towards Turkey. In its turn, Turkey closed its borders and built a three-meter high border wall.

Yesterday, an air strike on a makeshift IDP camp near Sarmada, known as al-Kamuna camp, killed at least 28 people, including women and children. After the strike, as many as 300 families decided to leave the camp, but it is unclear where they will go—they have already fled their homes once, the camp they took refuge in has been attacked, and the Turkish border is closed. This attack comes despite a 48 hour truce, starting in the early hours of Thursday morning, to stop the fighting around Aleppo. On Thursday, Bashar al-Assad said that he will accept no less than a “final victory” over his opponents in Aleppo.

As Assad sustains his military operations on Aleppo, as many as 400,000 people could be displaced, according to some estimates. Friday prayers were cancelled in Aleppo, in fear of the regime targeting large gatherings. Only a dozen people managed to flee the city. Kurdish forces block Castillo road, shooting at, or blocking the passage of any civilian transportation or humanitarian delivery going in or out of Aleppo. Some took refuge in Idlib and from there will try to cross into Turkey. Idlib residents believe the siege of the city is imminent and it will not be long before the situation in Aleppo will resemble Eastern Ghouta. The regime has had the latter under a tight siege four years. Civilians in Idlib are appalled that the city center and suburbs, the only haven for those fleeing the horrors of fighting in northern Syria, will be bombed.

Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.

Image: Photo: A boy, evacuated with others from the northwestern province of Idlib, is seen standing inside a hospital that was struck by an explosion in the south of Damascus, Syria, April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki