Idlib ceasefire brings calm but no respite from fear

Residents of rebel region use lull in Syrian regime strikes to seek safer areas

Syrians inspect the damage following reported regime airstrikes on the town of Muhambal, in the northern Idlib province on July 6, 2019. Syrian regime bombardment has killed 14 civilians including seven children in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said Saturday, in the latest deadly raids on the embattled opposition bastion
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On a patch of land in Syria’s Hama province sits Abu Aya’s abandoned chickpea farm.

About 10 kilometres away, his house in the town of Latamna has also been left after being bombed more than 10 times by pro-government forces in recent years.

"It's just rubble at this point," the father of two told The National  on WhatsApp.

After the first bombings in 2015, Abu Aya repaired the house and his family moved back in for a time. Then another bombing wounded all of them and killed his nephew.

The family now live in a village in Idlib province, near the border with Turkey, where Abu Aya has built a two-room home of breeze blocks.

But Idlib and adjoining areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces have been the target of renewed bombing by the Syrian government and its allies in recent months as President Bashar Al Assad seeks to reclaim the last area in rebel control after more than eight years of civil war.

Abu Aya watched on news channels and social media last month as pro-government forces surrounded and seized Latamna and the countryside around his farm in northern Hama.

The advancing forces also captured the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, which lies on a key highway between Damascus and Aleppo city.

TOPSHOT - Plumes of smoke rise following reported Syrian government forces' bombardment on the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the jihadist-held Idlib province, on June 7, 2019. Fierce clashes between government forces and jihadists have left 83 combatants dead in northwestern Syria in the past 24 hours, a Britain-based war monitor said on June 7. / AFP / Anas AL-dyab

Even though Russian forces announced a unilateral ceasefire from August 31, Abu Aya has no plans to move back. It is simply too dangerous, he said.

Hours after the ceasefire was supposed to go into effect, the US launched a strike on Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in rural Idlib, reportedly killing 40 of them.

Much of Idlib province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a hardline group with ties to Al Qaeda.

Pro-opposition news outlets also reported sporadic missile strikes on areas of southern Idlib and rural Aleppo since the ceasefire began.

Abu Aya, like other residents of the rebel-controlled region, is waiting out the ceasefire, which they say does nothing to ease daily life after months of intense government bombing.

Deadly onslaught

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Hama provinces since the bombing began in late April, the latest UN count shows.

The onslaught included dozens of attacks on hospitals and markets crowded with shoppers. Idlib’s school system is all but destroyed.

This ceasefire is the second to be declared by the government side. A truce declared on August 1, hours after the UN Secretary General announced a special investigation into the repeated attacks on civilian targets, lasted less than a week.

Hundreds of thousands of Idlib residents fled to northern reaches to escape the government's military campaign.

Towns and villages along the front line in northern Hama and southern Idlib are either in ruins or deserted.

The onslaught came despite a de-escalation deal announced last September by Turkey and Russia, which was meant to stave off a widely anticipated government offensive on Idlib.

The deal set up a buffer zone surrounding Idlib and rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.

For a while, a relative calm held, albeit with sporadic bombing. But in April, Syrian and allied forces stepped up air strikes in Idlib, in a military campaign UN relief chief Mark Lowcock described as “scorched earth”.

Residents have little hope of a long-term reprieve, and few options.

Idlib has long been the end point for displaced civilians and former rebel fighters who left other areas of Syria retaken by pro-government forces.

More than three million people live in the largely rural, agrarian pocket of territory.

Among them are people from Deraa in the south, the suburbs of Damascus, and other former opposition strongholds seized by the Syrian army in recent years.

‘Always in fear’

In Idlib city, the provincial capital, Umm Omar is using the relative calm of the ceasefire to plan her escape.

She is not sure how much longer she can live there with pro-government forces closing in.

Her aim is to get to the northern area bordering Turkey with her husband and young son. It is likely to be a difficult journey, Umm Omar said.

“I have no relatives or friends there,” she said.

But in the city, her husband and son are “always in fear”. Her son will only play indoors now, scared by the bombing.

“The regime could break the ceasefire at any moment," Umm Omar said. "We’re all afraid of more military advances.”

Her husband, Hmeid, has been helping to transport dozens of remaining residents from southern Idlib villages to the north, as part of a team civil defence first responders.

It could be their last chance to flee before the bombs start again.

“Before Khan Sheikhoun fell, we used to just visit them” to provide aid, Hmeid said.

Now he is driving vehicles to whisk them and their possessions away from what could soon be the front line.

Hmeid estimates his team has helped 10 families to flee north each day since the start of the ceasefire.

In an area of Idlib now dotted with ghost towns, those he transports north are among the final residents to leave.

“Most of these people are very poor. They live in makeshift camps," Hmeid said.

“When we talk, they speak of their fears – that they’ll never return to their homes again. Or if they do return, they will have been destroyed by the bombing.

“These are people who have stayed in their homes, withstanding the air strikes.”

But with government’s ground forces now less than 10km to the south, it is time to leave, he said.

“They are afraid that their own villages could share the same fate as Khan Sheikhoun.”