Syria Violence Sends Thousands of Civilians Fleeing 'De-Escalation Zone'
After almost seven years, some half a million people killed and a recent string of victories by the Syrian military, there's a sense the Syrian war may be coming to a close.
Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, declared last month its mission accomplished and announced a partial pullout of its troops. Syrian state television now regularly broadcasts footage celebrating its military commanders as national heroes.
And investors from around the world speak in increasingly excited terms about that most lucrative phase of war: reconstruction.
Yet the reality on the ground is that the violence is far from over.
A stark reminder of this is erupting in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
In the last few days, more than 100,000 civilians have fled their homes and refugee camps, according to the United Nations, escaping a renewed government offensive to take back control of the southern edges of the province. They're fighting against a plethora of rebel groups who seized much of the province in the early days of the civil war.
Civilians are fleeing to safer reaches of the province close to the northwest border with Turkey. Aid workers report roads jammed with cars and trucks filled with people escaping with the few possessions they can carry.
Paul Donohoe, a senior media officer for the International Rescue Committee, says "more than two-thirds" of these displaced people "are living in makeshift tents unable to withstand the wintry conditions."
One Syrian who works with an international aid organization, who asked not to be named as he doesn't have permission to speak to the media, broke down as he spoke to NPR about the scale of the humanitarian fallout from the years-long war.
"I was in Syria two days ago and I couldn't stop crying," he said on Wednesday. "This time last year, we had the fall of Aleppo city. And now we have people from Idlib's countryside. People are so worried, so scared, so disappointed.
We try to help. But no one can really make things better.
"We try to help. But no one can really make things better. No one can imagine what it's like to have to leave your home and not know if you'll ever be able to return," he added.
Many of those on the run are people who have already fled other parts of Syria and were using Idlib as an uneasy safe haven. (This map, from a U.N. humanitarian group, shows where in Syria displaced families have escaped to.)
Idlib has long been a heartland for opposition rebels. The government lost control of much of the province early on in the uprising against Assad, and it's now one of the last major parts of the country that the opposition controls.
As the Syrian government took back control of other parts of the country, it struck cease-fire deals allowing opponents who surrendered to safely leave the area and relocate with their families to Idlib.
For the government, Idlib became a convenient dumping ground as it sought to clear rebels from other parts of the country. For opposition members and their families, it became a last resort — often they left their homes with nothing, and arrived not knowing where they would live.
The U.N. estimates over 1 million people now in the province have fled from other parts of Syria.
Just before Christmas, the Syrian military made its move on Idlib. Southern towns and villages in the province have been pounded with airstrikes and barrel bombs — oil barrels filled with explosives.
On Wednesday, NPR was speaking by phone with a member of the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense group that's funded by the U.S. and other world powers and provides volunteer emergency services in the aftermath of airstrikes. He identified himself as Ahmed al-Shaykhun. As he spoke, a plane could be heard flying in the background. Then there was a sudden impact: an airstrike explosion.
"It just hit the city of Khan Shaykhun nearby," he said, and then carried on talking about the situation for civilians in the area, his voice shakier with fear than before.
"We are trying to provide secure passage for people to flee to more secure areas," Shaykhun said. "The civilians inside Idlib are living in the most dangerous place in the world. Barrel bombs and other weapons are just falling on the heads of these people."
He said the towns near the front lines have been almost completely abandoned by their residents. The streets are ghostly empty.
The government's push into Idlib appears to be an attempt to take back control of Abu al-Dhuhour, a major military air base that the Syrian forces lost to rebels in September 2015 after a years-long siege. It's unclear how much farther they aim to advance.
A map believed to have been leaked after Russia-led peace talks in September in Astana, Kazakhstan, appeared to reveal a plan to divide parts of northwest Syria into three zones: one overseen by Turkey, another co-managed by Turkey and Russia and a third by the Syrian regime. There has been no official confirmation of the map. (The tweet displayed comes from a Turkish pro-opposition research group called Omran Dirasat. It purports to show the allegedly leaked map. NPR could not independently verify its veracity.)
Aron Lund, a Syria expert and fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, says he can't independently confirm that the widely shared map allegedly leaked during the Astana peace talks is what has been officially agreed.
If confirmed, the map contours show the Syrian government taking control of a crucial highway that passes through Idlib, which Lund says is in fact a key government objective.
"The Syrian government has said in the past that a de-escalation zone in Idlib should secure the north-south highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo and passes through Idlib," he told NPR. "This is the spine of Syria in many ways, and that would go a long way to normalizing their control in the country."
The Syrian government's incursion into Idlib so far appears to roughly follow the contours of this map. Some Idlib residents told NPR they believe the government is trying to accelerate the creation of these areas, albeit through force rather than negotiation.
The Russia-led talks also established parts of Idlib as a "de-escalation zone," which requires warring groups — except for extremist militias who didn't sign the agreement — to limit fighting in these areas.
Turkey has long supported opposition to Syrian President Assad and has provided support to some rebel groups in Idlib. Turkish officials angrily accused the Syrian government of violating the de-escalation zone agreement and called on Iran and Russia — which are allied with the Assad regime — to press Damascus to halt its offensive in Idlib.
Russia responded by urging Turkey to pressure Syrian opposition groups to also de-escalate hostilities, and accused rebel fighters of launching drone attacks on a Russian military base in Syria.
Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces repelled a series of drone attacks over the weekend, adding that none of the attacks caused any damage to their base in the nearby coastal province of Latakia.
France also expressed extreme concern about the regime's Idlib offensive and demanded that the commitment to reduce fighting in the area be respected.
On Wednesday, the Syrian government defended the military campaign, saying it was targeting terrorist groups that are not party to the agreement. Syrian state media said the French Foreign Ministry had shown "great ignorance about what was happening in rural Idlib province."
Citing a Syrian Foreign Ministry source, the state media said the army was fighting to liberate the area from "terrorism."
The main rebel faction in Idlib is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which includes members of a group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra that had known links to al-Qaida.
But throughout the war, Assad has labeled all rebels opposing his rule as "terrorists." And residents of Idlib say the government's bombing campaign has been indiscriminate, hitting civilian buildings as well as rebel holdouts.
"They are targeting all areas; towns and villages, and even schools and hospitals," said Raed Fares, a pro-opposition media activist and resident of Kafranbel, a town in Idlib where the fighting is taking place.
Aid agencies are preparing for the worst. An internal memo from one international organization, shown to NPR on the condition that the charity not be identified, tries to develop contingency plans.
If the government is seeking to hasten the carve-up of Idlib, as per the allegedly leaked map, there could be a lull in the fighting after Syrian forces conquer the territory ascribed to them on the map.
But that's unlikely to calm the violence in the long run, because, the memo says, ultimately Damascus wants to win every piece of Syria back.
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