Civilians bear the brunt of escalating violence in Syria’s Idlib
Russian and Syrian government forces have stepped up attacks in the rebel stronghold, with civilians suffering the most.
Idlib, Syria – Maryam Barakat’s marriage last month was quiet due to a recent escalation in bombings by Syrian and Russian forces in the rebel stronghold of Idlib, northwest Syria. Few people came – those who did were careful not to sound their car horns in celebration.
Despite the war, Maryam, 20, had managed to continue her studies and graduated this year as a midwife. It was while studying midwifery at university that Maryam met her future husband, 25-year-old Taha Taqa, who was training to become an anaesthetist.
“I told Taha one day that I had never seen two people this close to one another. They could not live apart from one another. Taha’s life was Maryam and Maryam’s life was Taha,” Mohamed Taqa, Taha’s father, told Al Jazeera. They married on July 10.
But their marriage was brutally curtailed – it lasted just a week.
On July 18, they prepared to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday with family in the village of Jabal al-Zawiya.
“All the men were sitting in front of the house when we heard a sound,” Mohamed Taqa told Al Jazeera.
“Moments later, a big explosion happened and I was thrown on the ground. I could no longer move and I was breathing very heavily. We were screaming for the paramedics.”
The family home was hit by what witnesses have told Al Jazeera was most likely a laser-guided artillery shell fired by Syrian government forces. Remnants of Russian-made artillery shells were found on the ground.
Taha was badly injured in the attack. He is now conscious and being treated in a hospital across the border in Turkey.
Maryam was killed.
“Words cannot describe her,” Maryam’s eldest brother Bashar says. “I did not see anything but good from her.”
The shelling that killed Maryam is the latest in a series escalation in attacks over the last two months in Idlib, the last rebel-held bastion in Syria, according to the United Nations.
The latest violence comes despite a ceasefire signed in March 2020 between Turkey, which backs opposition armed groups in control of much of Idlib province, and Russia, the Syrian government’s closest ally.
Some four million civilians currently live in Idlib – mostly women and children. The UN estimates there are 2.8 million displaced people in northwestern Syria – many sheltering in severely overcrowded displacement camps and with nowhere left to run as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have gradually retaken much of the territory lost since 2011.
The UN’s Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts warned in a statement provided to Al Jazeera that civilians in Idlib have been “bearing the brunt of a serious escalation in bombing, the most deadly since a ceasefire was agreed in March 2020”.
He also said people in Idlib are “trapped in a war zone”, calling on all parties to the conflict “to protect civilians in accordance with international law”.
In June and July, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that, as a result of air attacks and shelling, 66 civilians (including 16 women and 33 children) have been killed and hundreds injured.
The spokesperson for the UN special envoy for Syria, Jenifer Fenton, said there is a danger that the de-escalation and ceasefire agreements could “unravel”.
“They could be slowly eroded by the near-constant tempo of limited violence across front lines. Even worse, they could swiftly collapse by a much more dramatic escalation,” she told Al Jazeera.
She added that the envoy believes there is a “need for a new constructive international dialogue on Syria to discuss concrete steps”.
Al-Assad’s forces want to take control of Jabal al-Zawiya, as it is close to the strategically vital M4 highway south of Idlib linking government-controlled cities of Aleppo and Latakia.
But Omer Ozkizilcik, a Syria analyst at the Turkey-based SETA Foundation, said the recent escalation in violence may also be about sending a message to Turkey.
“Whilst the Assad regime and Russia always want to maintain a certain amount of escalation in Idlib to not lose their ability to launch a new military operation, the recent escalation is mainly motivated by international developments rather than Syrian dynamics,” he said.
“Russia is trying to exploit the millions of civilians in Idlib as a pressure tool against Turkey to limit its support and cooperation with anti-Russian [forces].”
‘Look at what is happening’
Amid the renewed violence in Idlib, humanitarian workers have also paid with their lives.
On July 17, White Helmets rescue workers, also known as the Syria Civil Defence, lost their 291st team member in Idlib. Paramedic Hammam al-Asi, a 30-year-old father of three, died in an attack.
The White Helmets told Al Jazeera they have been “deliberately targeted with laser-guided Krasnopol shells” by the Syrian government forces and Russia at least six times in two months, with two volunteers killed and 13 others injured.
Al-Asi had dreamed of becoming a chemistry teacher, his father Muhammad Saeed told Al Jazeera.
“But due to the revolution, he was unable to achieve this. He loved working in the Civil Defence since it was humanitarian work,” he said.
Kamel Zureik, the White Helmet’s team leader in Bzabur Centre in Southern Idlib, was with al-Asi and other colleagues as they worked to free people trapped under the rubble in a home that had been hit by shelling from the Syrian regime in Idlib’s Sarjah.
Civilians had saved two children before they arrived and the White Helmets freed one more, and were working to save another when an incoming shell exploded and fatally wounded al-Asi.
They were targeted what is known as a double-tap attack, a brutal tactic used by the Syrian and Russian forces to target a location and then, when first responders are on the scene trying to save the civilians injured or trapped as a result of the first attack, hit the same location again.
Al-Asi died en route to the hospital, too badly wounded to drink the water he was pleading for, Zureik said.
“We say to the international community: Look at what is [still] happening on the ground. Look at how the rescue teams are becoming victims,” Zureik said.
Since then the attacks have continued – at least nine children were killed last week in a series of attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces in Idlib.
Meanwhile, amid the ongoing violence, civilians face severe challenges such as access to healthcare and education, fewer work opportunities, and scarcity of food and water.
“I, like all people in Idlib, fear for my children and try to provide them security, safety, and food,” Maryam’s father Muhammad said. “But I feel that we have no future; where are we going?”
Maryam and Taha’s families say their love and marriage, as war raged around them, was a quiet but heroic act of defiance and courage and hope, in the face of loss, displacement and suffering.
But in Syria, there are endless ways to break a heart.
“Here in Idlib, all dreams are bombarded. Dreams here have a limit but they are eventually destroyed,” Maryam’s father Muhammad said.
Now, Maryam’s father goes to stand at her grave, where her and Taha’s initials are written on the front of her headstone.
“I wish the whole world to know the story of Maryam, of her pure and tender heart. I know Maryam’s wish would be that this does not happen to other civilians, husbands, and children,” he said.
“When they broke Maryam’s dream, they broke all of our dreams.”