Weeks after the guns went largely silent following some of the most intensive battles waged in the eight years of conflict in Syria and the major advances made by the Syrian army against militants and Jihadis in rural Hama and Idlib provinces, the humanitarian corridor opened by the Syrian government for civilians wanting to leave Idlib for safety remains largely unused.
The corridor of Abud Duhoor near the town of Souran, Hama close to the Idlib frontier was announced a few weeks ago to enable hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in rebel-controlled Idlib to leave, should the major battle for Idlib becomes inevitable. Some civilians managed to trickle through the corridor, but the majority have been prevented, by force and sometimes by firepower, from leaving the province. Estimates of civilians there, range between 1.5 and 3 million. Any mass exodus in any direction might well prove disastrous due to the large numbers anticipated to flee the battlefield.
Human Shield for HTS and Affiliates
Previous experiences during the conflict in Syria have proven humanitarian corridors vital in avoiding large civilian casualties, prime examples were implemented in Damascus’s eastern Ghouta, Dar’a, Homs and southern provinces. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were saved through such humanitarian corridors, were resettled by the government which has provided them with shelter, education and necessary supplies ever since.
As in previous cases, hardline militant groups have prevented the majority of civilians from leaving into government-controlled areas. They have systematically been used as a human shield by rebels to avert Syrian and Russian airstrikes and shelling. The few hundreds who have managed to leave through the Abud Duhoor corridor have reported difficulties in the process including the risk of death as they were fired at by rebel groups when they were spotted leaving for safety. Crossing the humanitarian corridor could easily become a matter of life or death for many.
Better or Bitter Choices for Refugees?
As Turkey has formally stated its unwillingness to harbour any more Syrian refugees – it is working on getting rid of the 3.6 million Ankara claims that are already on its territories – following numerous incidents of anger and hostilities by Turks against Syrian workers and refugees alike. And as the al-Qaeda affiliated HTS (al Nusra terrorist group’s new name) has also made it clear that no one is allowed to leave Idlib or lay down their arms or they face the death penalty, civilians find themselves with very little choice of their own.
Traumatised as they may well be, risking the journey through the humanitarian corridor might remain their better choice. Deciding between the better and the bitter choice, the destiny of Idlib civilians hangs in the balance. The Syrian government and Russia have given assurance of safety and support for all families or individuals wishing to leave the rebel-controlled province, although under a continuous campaign of psychological pressure and threats by radical militants, many civilians in Idlib remain sceptical and fear for their lives either way.
Complications Further Exasperated
Recent demonstrations against Turkey and anti-Erdogan slogans chanted by thousands who marched through Idlib rural areas and stormed the border gates with Turkey in Atama and Bab al Hawa a few weeks ago, reveal an unprecedented degree of frustration and anger by the local community following the displacement of some 400000 civilians during the last spate of fighting in Hama and Idlib countryside.
The situation in Idlib, complicated as it is, has been further exasperated because almost half of its current population consists of refugees who have already been displaced or chose to take refuge in the city and its rural areas. Idlib is thought to have become the largest concentration of terrorist and Islamic Jihadis in the world, with estimates of over 75000 well-trained, well-equipped and even suicidal radicals from over 80 countries entrenched in the city. HTS (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) has the upper hand in Idlib, with overwhelming powers, as it has enlisted or exterminated all other rebel groups in the area.
Given the refusal by Idlib’s supreme rulers to accept a demilitarised zone, hand over heavy arms or negotiate any settlement with Damascus or Russia, the situation in Idlib remains as dangerous and volatile as ever.
Any Change After Trilateral Summit?
Idlib and its refugees were two prime topics discussed by the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey last week in Ankara. Whilst all three presidents agreed on the need to fight terrorism and preserve the integrity of Syrian territories and prevent a mass exodus of civilians from Idlib, things on the ground tell a completely different story.
Turkey, in particular, is systematically undermining the integrity of Syrian land, occupying certain parts and planning to run others under the pretext of resettling millions in the newly formed northeastern ‘safe zone’. The Syrian army and the majority of Syrians who have had enough with fake truces and ceasefires, view all such politically-motivated declarations as no more than time-buying ploys. The Turkish army continues to operate in northern Iraq as well. Two of its soldiers were killed today when an explosive charge hit the convoy they were in.
Social media outlets are full of calls by Syrians for their national army to pursue its military campaign to the very end. However, the intertwined complications of the ‘Mother of all Syrian Battles’ in Idlib, render such an appeal all the more difficult to answer for the time being given its national, regional and even international ramifications.