In a Syrian rebel bastion, millions trapped in murky, violent limbo
IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.
Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.
“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime" of President Bashar Assad, said Okba al-Rahoum, manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.
On a rare visit to Idlib province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often-violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to al-Qaida.
In the decade since Syria’s war began, Assad's forces crushed communities that revolted against him, and millions of people fled to new lives of uncertainty — in neighboring countries, Europe and pockets of Syria outside of Assad’s grip, including the rebel-held northwest.
The Syrian leader has made it clear that these people don’t fit into his conception of victory, and few are likely to return as long as he remains in power, making the fate of the displaced one of the thorniest pieces of the war’s unfinished business.
“The question is: What is the future for these people?” said Mark Cutts, United Nations deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. “They can’t continue living forever in muddy fields under olive trees by the side of the road.”
Throughout the war, the rebel-held northwest became the destination of last resort for Syrians with nowhere else to go. The government bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.
Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.
About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.
After fighting consumed his hometown, Akram Saeed, a former police officer, fled to the Syrian village of Qah, near the Turkish border, in 2014 and settled on a patch of land overlooking olive groves in a valley below. He has since watched waves of his countrymen pour into that valley, where the olive trees gave way to a densely packed tent camp.
“In the last year, all of Syria ended up here,” Saeed said. “Only God knows what will come in the future.”
Humanitarian organizations working to hold back hunger and infectious diseases, including COVID-19, have struggled to get enough aid into the area. And that effort could become more difficult if Russia, Assad’s closest international ally, blocks a U.N. resolution up for renewal this summer to keep one border crossing with the northwest open for international aid.
Further complicating the international quandary over aiding Idlib is the dominant role of the militant rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS.
The group evolved from the Nusra Front, a jihadi organization that declared its allegiance to al-Qaida early in the war and distinguished itself by its copious use of suicide bombers against government and civilian targets.
Turkey, the United States and the United Nations consider HTS a terrorist organization, even though its leaders publicly distanced themselves from al-Qaida in 2016 and have since played down their jihadi roots. Those efforts were clear around Idlib, where flags, insignia and graffiti announcing the group’s presence were absent, even though residents often referred to it cautiously as “the group that controls the area.”