Rebel evacuations add fuel to Idlib’s lethal tinderbox

Around 27,000 people left the besieged rebel enclave located between Hama and Homs for new lives in rebel-held Idlib.
Wednesday 16/05/2018
Syrian civilians and rebel fighters arrive in the town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, on March 26, after being evacuated from various areas in Eastern Ghouta. (AFP)
Syrian civilians and rebel fighters arrive in the town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, on March 26, after being evacuated from various areas in Eastern Ghouta. (AFP)

TUNIS - A further pocket of Syria’s armed resistance fell to government forces on May 16. In a Russian brokered compromise agreement that has become a defining characteristic of Syria’s war, around 27,000 people left the besieged rebel enclave located between the central cities of Hama and Homs for new lives in the rebel-held governorate of Idlib in Syria’s north.

In a pattern that has become familiar to observers of Syria’s tortuous war, the fighters and former residents of Hama and Homs were presented with a simple choice after a protracted period of bombardment and siege: either stay and submit to rule from Damascus or, under Russian supervision, board the buses for Idlib.

To date, thousands of people – rebel fighters and civilians – have been evacuated to Idlib, often from positions they have occupied for years. Most dramatic was the evacuation of Eastern Ghouta, which, according to the UN, involved 66,000 people being put on buses and sent across the country to Idlib.

Many left for Idlib with little but the clothes they were wearing. Lying along Turkey’s border in Syria’s north, the governorate has become the dumping ground for Syria’s half-defeated opposition. Existing under an uncertain truce with the Damascus regime, Idlib’s fractious truce is monitored by the Turkish forces entrusted with policing the region.

Map of Idlib
Map of Idlib

Irrespective of the Turkish presence, the dominant rebel faction within the region is al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group that, like ISIS, is precluded from the truce with Damascus and stands as a permanent invitation to the regime’s bombers.

The humanitarian situation in Idlib is reported to be desperate. The governorate has seen its pre-war population of approximately 1 million doubled by those fleeing other parts of the country. The international aid agency Doctors Without Borders reported more than 60,000 evacuees arriving in Idlib and neighbouring Hama in the past two months alone.

Idlib has become the inevitable by-product of Syria’s unique war-time compromise, as arrays of often rival rebel groups evacuated from Aleppo, Homs, Hama, rural Damascus and the Lebanon-Syria border gather in either large groups or pockets throughout the governorate, raising the prospect of the province descending into something resembling a Peshawar valley along Turkey’s border.

Aware of the risks, Turkish forces have been increasing in number throughout the province. Further to establishing a bulwark against Kurdish expansion in Syria’s north, Ankara appears to be allying with several of the rebel groups, possibly including HTS, to create a series of loyalist forces capable of policing its border.

However, besieged in their stronghold around the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus lie the shrinking forces of the Islamic State fighters, which look unlikely to agree to withdraw to the remaining patch of desert they hold in Syria’s east. Instead, a potential relocation to Idlib may be a consideration, something that could provide the spark to the tinderbox being assembled along Turkey’s border.