Once a de-escalation zone, Syrian city is now a "dumping ground"

SYR-130617AAISTANBUL - Idlib is under siege from within and without.

Since January 2016, Syria’s internally displaced have arrived in the northwestern city and its surrounding province bordering Turkey at the rate of one person a minute as they flee fighting in their country’s civil war, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups who control much of the region are seeking to impose their version of Islamic law on residents and refugees in Idlib.

This week alone, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations and firefights claimed 163 lives in Idlib, according the London-based Syrian Observatory.

Multi-sided battles that include the Free Syrian Army, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the terror group’s main chapter in Syria, another Al Qaeda-linked militant group called Haras Al Din, or the Guardians of Religion, and remnants of Islamic State forces are a daily occurrence. While Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a militia led by Al Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate, has faced military setbacks in Idlib in recent months, it still controls about 60 percent of the territory.

“The situation in completely out of our hands and we are exhausted from this continuous war and displacement,” said physician Ali Kamal, an evacuee from the rural Homs province town of Waer that surrendered to Syrian government forces last April.

Last year, Idlib was declared one of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria included in a Russian-sponsored agreement brokered between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel forces. But people on the ground said the agreement was a farce.

“How can you call this a de-scalation when a Russian missile destroyed a 12-storey building where we operated a clinic?” said Kamal, who works for a network of health centers supported by the Syrian American Medical Society in Idlib. “Meanwhile the criminal gangs and extreme groups are kidnapping specialist physicians and asking for ransoms.”

The jihadists are giving the Russians a pretext to attack and a reason for Western donors to pull back from efforts to assist Idlib civilians. Tragically, that’s hurting locals.

“HTS does not have a base within the local population,” said Ammar Kahf, executive director of Omran for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, referring to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. “Most of the local population rejects them and we are publishing our field study in July documenting how many state that they are publicly against HTS and how many are coerced into to collaborating with them.

The extremists number less than 10,000 fighters, he added.

“It’s important not to exaggerate the size of HTS,” Kahf said. “What the Russians have done is, haphazardly target the civilian populations in those regions, risking hundreds and thousands of lives. What the United States needs to do is empower residents and the anti-Assad armies to consolidate and eliminate the Al Qaeda groups in the north.”

This month, a group of civilian activists in the provincial towns of Ma’arat Al Nu’man and Saraqib took the initiative to exclude jihadist groups from their neighborhoods by posting “termination of contract” notices on trees and electrical poles that tell foreign fighters that they are not welcome in Idlib.

“People are sick of foreign commanders constantly intervening in local affairs,” said Samir Mansour, an activist who prints and posts the notices. “We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the air attacks.”

In January, the students of Free Aleppo University, an independent higher education center that has relocated forty miles from Syria’s second largest city to Idlib, successfully staged demonstrations that prevented the replacement of deans and department heads by functionaries backed by Islamist militias.

“We are about training students to fight against all kind of injustice, said Free Aleppo University Law Professor Abdulkafi Alhamdo. “But our biggest problems now are Russian and Assad regime bombing together with the scale back in assistance from Western donors because they don’t see how we are defeating Al Qaeda and the other extremist groups in the classroom, hospitals and town councils”

But the White House froze some $200 million dollars for civilian projects in Syria in March, citing fears of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham influence and a desire to see other nations.

The holdbacks included money for the White Helmets civilian search and rescue teams who help recover people from bombed-out buildings and other rubble, support to restore of water and power and efforts to remove unexploded weapons from agricultural areas.

Ammar Khaf, the Istanbul-based Syria analyst, believed the Idlib requires coordinated Western military intervention.

“Eliminating HTS and Haras El Din will require infiltration and elimination using the anti-Assad Syrian forces supported by the Americans and the Turks and precision logistical support for targeting the leaders of these groups, especially the foreign elements,” Khaf said. “We also need to make sure that residents have access to basic services like water and gas because it’s clear that HTS is using control over these resources as a revenue stream for themselves and for control over civilians.”

A version of this story can be found in the Washington Times.
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