Syria’s Idlib Province Gets New Lease on Life

The looming military offensive on the Idlib province in Syria has been called off for now. People there are yearning to return to normal life and rapidly planning for the future. But how long with the peace last?

Pro-Turkey Syrian fighters and Turkish troops secure the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters captured the strategic hill in northwestern Syria after intense fighting on Sunday as their offensive to root out Kurdish fighters enters its second week, Turkey’s military and Syrian war monitor reported. (AP Photo)

Two weeks before the sudden cease-fire, Abdul Aziz Ajini’s neighbors thought he had gone crazy. While others in the village of Kurin, located in Idlib province, trembled with fear ahead of the major offensive on the immediate horizon, Ajini, a former professor of English literature at a local college, began to rebuild his home, which had been bombed to rubble years ago.

As the people of Idlib were trying to sell their homes, property and furniture to raise money for their escape — even though no one was buying, and nobody even knew where they could flee to — Ajini was busy collecting cement and bricks and hiring an engineer. Even the engineer pulled him aside and asked: “Tell me, Aziz, are you really sure this is a good idea — now, of all times?”

He himself hadn’t even bought any new clothes for months. People were ready to flee at a moment’s notice, taking only what they could carry — whatever fit on a motorcycle or in a car. An entire province of nearly 3 million people was waiting with bated breath, listening for the sounds of approaching fighter jets, those harbingers of death.

Then on Sept. 17, something happened that no one had been expecting: Turkey and Russia reached an agreement and the offensive was called off. There would be no new attacks. The news came 10 days after a summit in Tehran failed to produce any results. Now, weeks after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s announcement that “this festering abscess must be liquidated,” there has been a sudden turnaround. At least for the time being.


Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu presented the parameters of the deal at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday of last week. The agreement calls for the establishment, by October 15, of a 15 to 20 kilometer-wide demilitarized corridor along the existing front line surrounding Idlib and the northern edge of Hama province. Any jihadi groups among the rebels would have to withdraw from that area five days prior to that date. A majority of rebels under Turkish control would be allowed to stay, but they would have to move tanks and artillery into central Idlib. The zone would be under the surveillance of the Turkish military and the Russian military police, who have long maintained bases here.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was opposed the offensive for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some more sinister. Storming Idlib would have driven hundreds of thousands toward the airtight Turkish-Syrian border and would have forced Ankara to take them in even as the government struggles to deal with the country’s tanking economy — in addition to the 3 million Syrian refugees who are already in Turkey.


Geographical Buffer

Erdogan has always linked his support for Syria’s rebels with his campaign against Kurdish PKK separatists operating on Turkish and Syrian soil. Having Idlib under his control would be useful, providing him both with a human reservoir and a geographical buffer. A destroyed Idlib under Assad’s control, on the other hand, would endanger the protectorate that Turkish troops have fought so hard to establish in northern Syria in recent years.

Erdogan took significant risks to get Moscow on his side. Attacks by Assad’s troops against targets in southern Idlib had been answered with counterattacks by rebels armed with Turkish weapons and ammunition. Erdogan had also threatened to walk away from multilateral talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the future of Syria that were taking place in the Kazakh capital, Astana, should the offensive against Idlib go ahead.


Still, hardly anyone in Idlib believed that the horror could still be avoided. Except for Ajini, the chain-smoking ex-professor from Kurin. And since the evening of Sept. 17, his neighbors no longer consider him crazy. Whereas they used to drop by to look at his bags of cement in wonder and disbelief, Ajini says, now they come by to ask where they can buy some too.

The province of Idlib, widely known in Europe as one of the last remaining jihadist strongholds, is more than twice as large as the German state of Saarland. Its soil is fertile and was densely populated even before the war. The sense of relief that has overcome the entire province has nothing to do with ideology, but with the will to live. Suddenly, people are spending their money again. Farmers are buying fertilizer and seed. Merchants are getting back in touch with their old suppliers in Turkey and northern Iraq. And refugees are starting to return to their villages in southern Idlib.


For years, the farmer Adnan al-Sawadi was unable to harvest the crop produced by his 2,000 pistachio trees in Murik, located near the front lines – and prices were low as well. “But now, since Tuesday morning, customers are getting in touch again and saying they want to buy everything in advance.” In the city of Khan Shaykhun, the tire salesman Mohammed Mansour had to keep postponing a telephone interview because customers kept coming in. “You should have called on Sunday,” he joked. “I was free the entire day.”

Ahmed Dervish, an engineer and a member of the local city council, recalls the night-long debates in recent months: “Will the regime attack? Will Turkey come to the rescue? Will it betray us? Are we all going to die?” His wife, a trained pharmacist, used to dream of having her own pharmacy. But Dervish was opposed. “We had $5,000, our entire savings. We could take it with us. We couldn’t take a pharmacy.” She heard about the Sochi agreement before her husband did and immediately called him: “Ahmed! They’re not going to attack! ”





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