I visited the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib on the Turkish border for the first time in November 2014. It was really cold, although winter had not arrived yet. I was visiting the little town of Atmeh, which had turned into a tent city after the civil war broke out. Reaching Azaz through Aleppo, the olive groves of Atmeh became home to approximately 300,000 internally displaced Syrians who escaped Bashar Assad's barrel bombs and his armed militiamen.
It was so cold that I was desperately looking for a moment to escape and go back to sit in the car. But those people were there for weeks, maybe months, and they were going to be there for a long time, except if they died. There was a big risk of freezing to death, but some said the conditions were still better than other camps like Yarmouk. There was a lack of services, order, security and hygiene, while food and water shortages were the other problems. Tents, blankets and heaters were failing to meet people's needs. U.N. logos were on the tarps, which were put on top of the tents as if they were advertising the refugee camps.
However, the only ones trying to provide humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians in Idlib were the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish governmental and nongovernmental aid organizations.The last time I visited Idlib was last summer. It was so hot that the people were trying to survive under the scorching sun on the dusty ground. The branches and the blankets that they used to protect themselves from the freezing cold were failing to serve as shade under the sun. According to U.N. estimates, there were around four million Syrians trapped in the city center and rural Idlib. The number of displaced people in the refugee camps through the Turkish border alone reached to 1.5 million while the last round of the eight-year bloody civil war was coming closer.
In the Idlib city center, there was a deadly silence. People were hopeless and scared as the Syrian regime forces were closing in on opposition-held areas, and they knew that Idlib would be where the opposition would make its final stand. They were tired and exhausted because of the nonsensical inner fights between opposition groups. They were aware of that the Hay'at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which is dominated by a former al-Qaida affiliate that has been known as the Nusra Front, would be the reason for the rest of the world to turn a blind eye to the upcoming massacre. But the fact is, and has been, all opposition members who fought against the regime were terrorists in the eyes of the regime and its allies. The regime would not spare no one, not even the civilians unless they defect to the opposition, and fight for Damascus.
The Syrian regime has been ruthless. During the civil war, hundreds of thousands were dead, and some 12 million – more than half of the population of Syria – have been forced to leave their homes. While around 6.5 million have been internally displaced, 5.5 million have become refugees outside the country. The Assad regime has been the real butcher and responsible for this dirty war in the first place, but it has also shown us how propaganda can beat reality. The notorious Daesh terrorist organization attempted to make a nest in the war-torn country and establish a twisted state on the soils of Iraq and Syria, and that was like a gift to Assad. He threatened the world with Daesh and secured his own throne as if there were no other options for Syria. The Syrian people had just asked for fair elections, some freedom and equality eight years ago but all they got was torture, killings and collective punishment, while the rest of the world was kept busy with Daesh instead of changing the environment it was born in and lived in.
Authorities are aware of the regime and its allies strategy – how they surround the opposition-held areas and push the people inside to starve to death until they surrender, how they turn entire districts into dust just because the opposition is in it, and how they bomb residential neighborhoods, even hospitals and schools with no mercy. And today they are trying to warn of a bloodbath in Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold.
Recently, Jan Egeland, an adviser to the U.N.'s special envoy for Syria, said the body would ask Turkey to keep its borders open for civilians to flee in the event of a regime offensive against Idlib. He also warned the regime offensive could propel some 2.5 million people toward Turkey, which already hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
The Turkish Army announced on May 16 that it finished establishing 12 military observation posts in Idlib as part of a three-way agreement with Russia and Iran under the Astana process. Ankara is now working on diplomatic solutions for Idlib in order to stop another massacre while officers at the posts are reassuring people that Turkey has no intention to withdraw as those posts were founded for this exact day.
I don't think it is a coincidence that Turkey is currently going through a new crisis with the U.S. right now, as every major offensive of the Syrian regime coincided with a crisis in Turkey in the last six years. I hope a diplomatic solution can be reached on the table, but this time I don't think Ankara will take a step back no matter how hard it is forced to. As Idlib is a matter of national security for Turkey like Jarablus, al-Bab or Afrin, Ankara can't let Idlib become another Aleppo or Homs, and will do whatever is necessary.
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