Istanbul, Turkey – Thousands of people have taken to the streets across Syria’s last remaining stronghold to protest against a potential full-fledged offensive by government forces and their allies.
Activists told Al Jazeera that Friday’s demonstrations took place in more than two dozen towns and villages in Idlib, a northwest province that is home to more than three million people.
In recent weeks, the Syrian government, supported by Russia and pro-Iranian militias, has been amassing forces close to areas controlled by the armed opposition in Idlib and northern Hama provinces, threatening a large-scale ground offensive that may result in a “bloodbath“, according to the United Nations.
In early September, the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched an intense campaign of shelling, air raids and barrel-bombing of opposition-held territories. The Russian-backed bombardment has receded over the past few days.
One of the biggest demonstrations was held in the city of Maarat al-Nouman in central Idlib province, where an estimated 25,000 people, including civilians from neighbouring villages and towns, gathered after Friday prayers, according to local sources.
“We want to send a message to the rest of the world that we are just an oppressed people who want freedom,” said Mahmoud Herkawi, 36, who works in a printing house in Maarat al-Nouman.
He said the rally was organised by the city council and a number of local activists.
“Our goal is the toppling of the Assad regime and stopping Russian aggression on our city,” he added.
Ahmad al-Youssef, who also participated in the demonstration in Maara al-Nouman, said the protesters shouted chants in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of opposition factions founded by officers who deserted the Syrian forces after the beginning of the war in 2011.
“The demonstration aimed to prove to the international community, Russia and the regime that this is a popular revolution and not terrorism, as they claim,” said al-Youssef, 24, who works with a group providing psychological support to children.
Over the past few years, Maarat al-Nouman has witnessed repeated protests against Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, armed group formerly known as al-Nusra Front which renounced its affiliation with al-Qaeda in 2016), which controls parts of Idlib province.
In 2016, residents managed to expel all of the group’s fighters from the city following clashes with the 13th Division, a local faction of the FSA.
Al-Youssef told Al Jazeera that Friday’s protest was larger than one that was held on September 7, which took place hours before a trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran in the latter’s capital, Tehran.
The trilateral talks on the fate of Idlib failed to reach a breakthrough, while a ceasefire proposed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was rejected.
Idlib city, the capital of the densely populated province, witnessed two parallel demonstrations on Friday.
One was held at the Clock Square by HTS members who raised flags of the armed group, and another at the Martyrs’ Square, where civilians waved the black-white-green flag of the uprising and chanted slogans against the Assad government.
Hadi al-Abdullah, a pro-opposition activist and citizen journalist, told Al Jazeera that the civilian demonstration was much bigger than the one organised by HTS, attracting more than 5,000 people from the city and the surrounding villages.
During the protests on September 7 in Idlib city, HTS members opened fire on the protesters after they shouted slogans against the armed group. Al-Abdullah told Al Jazeera that no such incidents took place during Friday’s protests.
Earlier on Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Erdogan will be hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss the Syrian crisis.
“We are ready to cooperate with everyone in the fight against terror groups but the killing of civilians, women and children under the guise of fighting against terror is not correct,” Cavusoglu said during a press conference in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, where he is on an official visit.
Russia has cited the presence of “terrorists” for launching the large-scale military offensive on opposition-controlled territories in northwest Syria.
Both Russia and Turkey have designated HTS a terrorist group.