Antakya, Turkey – For Ahmad, a father of two in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, there is not much he can do to protect his young family.
Like many others across the northwestern province, the 29-year-old is fearful of a chemical weapons attack in the event of a large-scale Syrian government offensive.
“People here are afraid that chemical weapons would be used to put pressure on the armed groups and to facilitate the advance [of government forces],” said Ahmad, who is from the village of Sararif and asked that his real name not be used in this article.
That growing fear has led locals to start taking precautionary measures, added Ahmad.
“Some people bought face masks, others [bought] heavy-duty gas masks that can protect against poisonous gases.”
But Ahmad possesses just one gas mask he bought for $40 a while back. The only other thing he has been able to do to provide at least some protection to his family was to seal off the bathroom of their house and transform it into an improvised shelter.
More than 60 percent of the people in his village, in the south of the province, have already fled to the areas near the border with Turkey, fearing the imminent offensive, says Ahmad.
The United States has warned the Syrian government against the use of chemical weapons and has threatened another military response – in April, Washington and its allies responded to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Douma with missile attacks.
On Thursday, Jim Jeffrey, special adviser on Syria to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the US government has “lots of evidence” that the Syrian government is preparing a chemical attack on Idlib.
“I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings,” he said.
But Russian officials have rejected the US claims, maintaining that the Syrian government no longer has any chemical weapons. In 2013, after mounting international pressure following a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, Assad government’s surrendered what it claimed were all the chemical weapons it possessed.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly suggested that Syrian rebels are preparing to “stage” a chemical attack in Idlib in order to provoke Western intervention.
“We have warned our Western partners not to play with fire,” Lavrov said during a press conference last week.
According to Marwan Kabalan, director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, statements by Russian officials may indicate that Syrian government forces plan to use chemical agents in the looming battle for Idlib.
Damascus is unable to amass enough troops to capture the province, which hosts at least 60,000 rebel fighters, he told Al Jazeera, adding that urban areas are particularly difficult to penetrate because of the networks of underground tunnels built by the rebel groups.
“The only way they manage to smoke people out of the tunnels is by using chemical weapons. Why did [Assad] use chemical weapons in Ghouta – because that was his only way to win,” Kabalan said.
On Friday, Russian and Syrian fighter jets continued to bomb various areas of southern Idlib province, activists said.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some of the air raids targeted the local headquarters of rebel groups, including members of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and moderate opposition formation al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front).
At least four people were killed and seven wounded in the air raids, local activists and rescue workers said.
Earlier on Friday, as the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Tehran, thousands of people took to the streets of major cities across Idlib province to protest against the possible offensive and Russian pressure on the opposition to accept a reconciliation deal with the Syrian government.
Ahmad joined the protests in nearby Jisr al-Shaghour, which was pounded by air raids on Wednesday.
“I am worried about the talk of a forced reconciliation and the Russians and the regime entering [Idlib]. Today we protested against [this possibility]” says Ahmad. “There are two possibilities: it is either the Russians [entering], which would mean I lose my land and my house forever, or the Turks take control which means stability and a return back to normal.”
To preclude support for a reconciliation deal from taking root in Idlib, local armed factions have resorted to arresting people suspected of supporting the idea, sources on the ground say.
According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, hundreds have been arrested so far by the two dominant armed groups in Idlib – HTS and al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir.
One Syrian media activist, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told Al Jazeera that he knows personally at least eight people who were arrested by the HTS in the past week. The activist says the accusations are often false and HTS is using the arrests to extort money from the families of the detainees.
According to Kabalan, the idea of reconciliation is not very popular in Idlib and it is unlikely that local people will accept such a deal. More than half of Idlib’s population of three million are internally displaced people, most having either fled the advance of government forces elsewhere or decided to leave the areas under al-Assad’s control, he said.
“They came from [all over the country] because they didn’t want to accept such a situation [reconciliation],” added Kabalan.