Armed opposition groups have pulled out of a key town in northwestern Syria as government forces move in — part of an ongoing and brutal offensive aimed at seizing an major opposition hold out.
In the years that followed the outbreak of the civil war, in 2011, the Syrian government lost more than 75 per cent of the land as it fell under the control of different groups fighting in the country. Today, with the support of Russia and Iran, the government taken back most of that territory.
But this one last major stronghold remains.
Located in the country’s northwest, Idlib is the last rebel-held province in Syria and it is being heavily bombed by the Syrian regime with the support of Russia. The government claims they are targeting terrorist groups in the province, but many report that civilians are being targeted.
While there are a number of armed factions in Idlib, it’s also the last hub for militant groups labelled as terrorist organizations, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most dominant group in the province. HTS is an alliance of armed groups that was founded in 2017 by a former al-Qaeda affiliate, known as al-Nusra Front. It claims to no longer have ties to al-Qaeda, but both Canada and the United States consider it a terrorist organization. So does the Assad regime.
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But Hallak said not all armed groups in Idlib are in the same league as HTS. “Some Islamic troops are not terrorists; they are not on the black list,” he said. “We don’t have that great numbers of extremists in the north,” he said.
Kevork Almassian, a political analyst and founder of Syriana Analysis, has a different view. He said the militant groups enforce their way of life and terrorize people in order to accept them.
“This has happened in my city of Aleppo, in the eastern neighborhoods of the city, where civilians were held hostage for almost four years by the militants,” said Almassian, who supports the Assad government.
But Almassian believes this is nothing but a narrative of the militant groups in Idlib and says the Syrian government doesn’t have an interest in killing its own citizens.
Almassian goes on to say that after government forces fully reclaimed Aleppo in 2016, following a devastating aerial campaign, the city is now being reconstructed and many people are choosing to return to their homes.
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Meanwhile, people who have fled their homes in Idlib are unable to go back after the airstrikes in the city and its suburban areas.
Civilians in Idlib are concerned about their future if the government takes back control of the province.
“If the regime comes to this area, if the regime controlled Idlib, no one knows how many people are going to die. I believe that at least 500,000 people are going to die,” said Hallak
“Bashar al Assad killed more children in this campaign than he killed in 2018, only in Idlib,”
Impact of warfare on women, children in Idlib
According to latest reports from Save the Children and its partner organization Hurras Network on Idlib, at least 90 children have been killed in attacks on Idlib so far this year — nearly triple the number that died in 2018.
And for mothers and children struggling to stay alive amid the battles and bombings, every day is a battle to find safe shelter.
A recent infographic about the situation in Idlib, prepared by Syrian activists and volunteers, highlights the widespread displacement of civilians.
“Many homes have been destroyed and nothing is left, but I want to point out to what is happening to people. They migrated from their homes while there are airstrikes, and now they live … under olive trees,” said Sahar Zatoor, a Syrian journalist in Idlib who also helped to prepare the infographics about Idlib.
The activists’ infographic also included the challenges faced by women and children who left their homes in Idlib.
The 12 points suggest that women in Idlib face privacy and health issues, especially the ones who are pregnant, or breastfeeding.
“One in every three families have a pregnant woman, or a women who is breastfeeding. They have to sit in a specific position that is against our religion and traditions,” said Zatoor, in an interview translated from Arabic by Global News.
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Global News spoke with CARE International’s deputy director for programs in Northwest Syria, Tue Jakobsen, who pointed out women and girls are the “most vulnerable” in conflicts.
“In Syria right now, women and girls make up 75 per cent of all those that are in need of humanitarian assistance,” he said in a Skype interview from his office in Gaziantep, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border.
But it’s not just the “special needs of women and girls” that put their well-being at risk, according to Jakobsen.
“We see generally, and also in Syria, unfortunately, a sharp increase in gender-based violence,” he explained. “Normal behaviour becomes risky behaviour, such as going to the bathroom or taking a shower.”
WATCH: Syrian women and girls hardest hit by years of civil war
As the offensive goes on, he worries how displaced women and children will be affected.
“We are extremely nervous about the coming winter. While the temperatures can reach very high during the summer, they can also be very cold during winter,” he said. “We’re nervous that they’ll either be residing outdoors or in makeshift camps… being exposed to ice-cold temperatures.”
*Ely Bahhade is a Global News intern and student in the UBC School of Journalism masters program. With files from Redmond Shannon and Nick Logan.