Residents of Syria’s Idlib province are refusing offers of safe passage to government-held territory despite increased bombardment in recent days as the Assad regime intensifies its campaign to recapture the final rebel holdout.
More than 200 civilians are estimated to have been killed and about 180,000 displaced since the government launched a Russian-backed aerial and ground assault on the north-western province late last month, prompting an international outcry.
While many civilians fled towards the closed border with Turkey, others said they would stay put.
“I will not let go of my land or home, or leave, not to Turkey and definitely not back to regime areas,” said Khaled Al Essa, 35, who lives with his daughter and parents in Khan Sheikhoun.
Mr Al Essa dismissed the offers of safe passage out of Idlib through humanitarian corridors guaranteed by Russia and the government.
"They keep repeating the same lie of a humanitarian corridor," he told The National by phone, with explosions and the sounds of aircraft in the background.
“If they don’t want people to die then stop the attacks, as simple as that. How could we feel safe to cross their corridors when they are already crushing us here?
“I don’t want to die under an olive tree or be humiliated with my family on the border.
“I have nothing to lose or gain if my family and I are to die in this holy month. So be it, we will not run away from whatever is our fate.”
The government offensive breaks a ceasefire agreed to in September last year by Russia and Turkey, which supports Syrian rebel groups, to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Idlib’s population has swollen to more than 3 million after fighters and civilians from other parts of Syria were given the option to move there from rebel-held areas recaptured by the government.
Mariam Ghlo, 31, fled to the Harem mountains with her husband and three children two weeks ago, after their home in the town of Latamnah was destroyed by a barrel bomb.
Along with dozens of other displaced families, they live in the open with scraps of fabric for shelter.
“Even though we are destitute, homeless, with nothing, not even enough blankets, water or food for the children, I don’t want to go back to regime areas, nor does my husband,” Ms Ghlo said.
“We learnt lessons from Ghouta, Deraa and other areas where the regime opened corridors for civilians to flee.
“On arrival they go through security checks, the men get arrested then killed, imprisoned or forced to fight with them.
“We would rather be here under this tree for a lifetime instead.”
The offer of safe passage is a warning of worse attacks to come, said Jamal Barode, 30, a father of two who moved to Maarat Numan in Idlib from Deraa after the southern province was recaptured by the government last year.
“Russia’s offer to open a passage for us to leave is a sign that a new escalation is ahead of us, worse than what we have had already,” Mr Barode said.
“When the Russia-Assad regime make such an offer, that means a furious ground operation or chemical attacks will follow in the coming weeks.
“This is what we were used to over the past years and the same formula is being used again here.
“The Russians must be fooling with us. They know that the majority here have already accepted corridors out of Aleppo, Ghouta, Deraa ...
“They chose to come to Idlib and now they are offering us a corridor to go back again? This is only a step towards another escalation.”
Mousa Abdullah, a strategic and military expert in Istanbul, said Russia’s offer of safe passage was a diversion from an embarrassing reversal against the rebels in a village last week.
“This comes after rebel forces recaptured Kafr Nabudah in less than 19 hours after it was taken in a fierce military campaign over 10 days,” Mr Abdullah said.
But Syrian state media reported that government forces retook the village on Sunday from militant groups including Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the dominant insurgent force in Idlib.
The opposition’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported from Britain that the militants had lost control of the village again.
Mr Abdullah said Russia was aware that there would be few takers for its offer of safe passage even if regime forces seized large areas of Idlib.
“Out of nearly four million, only a few thousand might leave,” he said.
“The majority are former internally displaced people who refused to stay in regime areas when they could, whether in Aleppo, Ghouta, etc, so it’s unlikely they will use these passages.
“Idlib, unlike those other cities, is a special area as the final frontline between the Assad regime and Ankara, which has supported rebel forces with advanced weapons to fight back in the recent offensive.
“There are more than 20,000 rebel forces with plenty of weapons and ammunition. Many are militant groups who have nowhere else to go and will fight to the death,” he said.
Death is also a very real possibility for the civilians who choose to remain in Idlib.
“We just want safety here,” Mr Al Essa said. “We won’t leave for anywhere. We are not terrorists, we are the residents and the rightful owners of these lands.
“I might not be alive in the next 24 hours, and may not be able to be heard again. The last thing I want the world to know is that you’ve got the Syrian people’s blood on your hands.”