As the threat of an all-out Syrian government offensive looms large over Idlib, Qays, a 26-year-old father of two, says he and his young family are running out of options.
“There’s no place for us to go. If an offensive takes place, it will be a bloodbath,” he told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
Qays, a volunteer with the civil defence group known as the White Helmets, is one of the almost three million people crammed in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last remaining rebel-held province in war-ravaged Syria.
For days now, President Bashar al-Assad‘s forces have been encircling Idlib, seemingly ready to launch what has been described as the last major battle in a long-running civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, displaced millions and left the country in ruins.
If the assault takes place, Idlib will be “the perfect storm”, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned this week. A battle, he said, would affect millions of civilians and could see both sides use chemical weapons.
Similarly, Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN’s refugee crisis, cautioned that an all-out attack would cause renewed displacement while exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation.
‘Nothing to do but wait’
After vowing to take back “every inch” of Syria, Assad, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, has managed in recent years to roll back rebels from territories they had previously gained – from Aleppo, through Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, to Deraa, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising.
Like Qays – who was displaced with his family from Deraa after Assad’s forces took over the city in July – hundreds of thousands of civilians and rebels from across Syria are now in Idlib, dubbed a “dumping ground” for those evacuated from other battlefields.
“We know there’s nothing for us to do but wait,” says Qays, recalling the grueling journey from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where he stayed for two weeks, before joining scores of families onto buses that transported them to Idlib.
Today, more than half the of the families based in Idlib are from other parts of Syria, many of whom reside in overcrowded camps.
Chemical attack fears
Qays, whose wife is expecting twins next month, says the prospect of a chemical attack is what scares him the most.
“We’re expecting the government to target Idlib with a chemical attack, just like it did in Khan Sheikhoun. We’ve already been receiving threats,” he says.
In April 2017, a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a town in Idlib, killed at least 83 people, a third of them children, and wounded nearly 300 others, according to a UN war crimes investigation.
The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria said in September 2017 that it had gathered an “extensive body of information” to show the Syrian air force was responsible for the sarin gas attack.
But Russian officials have also warned that rebels might stage a chemical attack and then blamed it on Assad’s forces in order to be used as a pretext for an assault by Western countries.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday in Moscow alongside his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against “established provocateurs who call themselves the White Helmets”.
“This kind of provocation is being staged as to complicate the whole issue of combating the terrorists in Idlib,” said Lavrov. “We have warned our Western partners clearly that they should not engage in this kind of activity.
Although Idlib has been designated a “de-escalation zone” as part of an agreement struck by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, residents say the area has been targeted by Syrian and Russian air attacks in recent months.
According to Mohammed, a 24-year-old pro-opposition activist in Idlib, the fierce bombardment has forced local families to leave their villages.
“A small number of families have already been displaced from the southeastern suburbs of Idlib, moving towards areas along the Turkish border.”
Such movement is likely to intensify if a full-blown government offensive is launched.
“More families will be moving further north and closer to the Turkish border – that’s the only direction we can potentially go,” adds Mohamed.
Turkey, which is already hosting more than three million Syrian refugees, sealed off its border with Syria last year, allowing only for the passage of humanitarian goods.
Its troops rolled into Idlib last year to implement the “de-escalation zone” as per the Astana diplomatic process, as well as in Afrin and Al Bab following military operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria’s north.
In recent weeks, Turkish-backed opposition groups in Idlib have attempted to form a new coalition, with some 70,000 fighters pledging to fight against forces loyal to Assad. But Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the most dominant rebel force in Idlib which controls about 60 percent of the province, has not joined the coalition.
Like many other Idlib residents, Dhafer, a 31-year-old pharmacist from Maarat al-Numan, said Turkish control over the area is the only way to guarantee the safety of its civilians.
“Our last strand of hope lies in Turkey,” says Dhafer. “It is the only regional power that has stood with us. We hope it will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks.”
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told reporters on Friday that Ankara “is trying to prevent an attack” on Idlib, calling such a development “a disaster”.
Turkey has been locked in intense negotiations with Russia over the past few weeks in hopes of preventing a large-scale assault that could prompt a new wave of displacement. On Friday, it officially designated HTS, which is dominated by a rebel faction previously known as al-Nusra Front before cutting its ties to al-Qaeda, a terrorist group.
“Thousands of us are calling on Turkey to take control of the region, just as it has done in Afrin and Jarablus,” says Mohammed.
But with the outcome of the Turkish-Russian negotiations remaining unclear, various rebel groups inside Idlib are already starting to prepare for an escalation, according to sources.
“Opposition groups are digging up tunnels and massing along possible front lines in preparation for an offensive,” says Anas, a pro-opposition activist and resident of Idlib.
“These tunnels are being dug up towards the southern and eastern suburbs of Idlib and will be used to push back a military offensive,” he adds.
“They [the opposition] won’t be the ones to start, but they will be ready to retaliate.”