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The Fall Of Idlib, No Safe Place Left In Syria

Rubble in Idlib
Rubble in Idlib
Tom Rollins

The camera pans across families waiting around with their luggage and children. Men stand with rifles slung over their shoulders, ready to board the evacuation buses north.

Migrating birds pass overhead. "Where are they going, do you know?" asks a voice, from the man holding the camera. "Every year, they go to their homes and then they come back."

Two young boys are watching beside him. One of them asks which journey they are watching now, departure or return?

"I don't know … to tell you the truth," the man responds. "But they're like us — we'll leave and then we'll come back, God willing."

The August 2016 video is from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that became the first opposition area in Syria to submit to a forcible evacuation agreement imposed by the Syrian government. After years of siege and months of bombardment all 8,000 rebel fighters and civilians remaining in Daraya agreed to leave — many of them to Syria's rebel-held northwest.

Under the agreement, residents were bussed north to areas in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib that comprised the last remaining rebel strongholds in the country. Those who stayed behind were required to "settle" their status with the Syrian government, although arbitrary arrests and disappearances have continued to haunt reconciled communities across the country.

Many are refugees several times over.

It proved to be a winning strategy. In the months and years that followed, the Syrian government and its allies used similar tactics to secure evacuations in districts across the country — siege and heavy bombardment followed by negotiations for surrender conducted at something close to gunpoint.

In recent years, the number of displaced people seeking refuge in Idlib alone has doubled to about 3 million people. Many are refugees several times over.

Now this refuge of last resort has become the scene of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of Syria's nine-year conflict. An offensive on Idlib by pro-government forces backed by Russian airpower has driven close to 950,000 people from their homes since early December in the biggest displacement wave since 2011. Families have fled north toward Turkey, but the border is closed; hosting close to 4 million Syrian refugees already, the Turkish government will not allow any more in.

Never has Bashar al-Assad's regime looked closer to delivering on his oft-repeated promise to retake "every inch of Syria." And in the process, the Syrian army and its allies are slowly but surely destroying Syria's last refuge — a place that is home to millions of Syrians displaced from their homes by pro-government advances over the years, and who are now on the run once again.

Their stories are ones of dislocation and uncertainty.

It was Malek who filmed the birds over Daraya as residents were forced to leave their homes in 2016.

A media activist working with Daraya's opposition-affiliated local council, he lived through siege and, later, evacuation. Malek — who requested that his full name be withheld for security reasons — has since left Syria, reaching Turkey in late 2018 after getting smuggled across the border.

"We were the first to be displaced in this way, so we didn't know what would happen," Malek recalls. "We were scared of what the regime would do when we were sitting in the green buses on our way to the north."

The convoy of buses slowly started to make their way through government-held areas of Syria — places they hadn't seen in years. Malek remembers how many of the evacuees, including himself, were struck by the normality of life passing by them outside. They had grown used to the sight of smoke and rubble, of buildings contorted and folded in on themselves.

"As we passed through the areas completely under the control of the regime, you could see normal life — people going to work, students on their way to university, shops opening normally," Malek says. "This was all going on just a 10-minute drive away from Daraya. Of course, we knew this was the case. But to see it was a shock."

Once in the rebel-held northwest, after crossing the last checkpoint separating the frontlines, many of Daraya's displaced immediately began to look for housing.

Daraya had become a blueprint.

"When the people of Daraya left in 2016, there hadn't been displacements from other areas yet so there was a lot of assistance coming from the locals in Idlib or from civil society organizations," Malek says. "Nobody from Daraya was living in tents, for example. They lived in houses, or small rented rooms in the IDP camps."

But even before the end of that year, Daraya had become a blueprint for the Syrian government's war effort. Town by town, suburb by suburb, pro-Assad forces gradually reasserted control over one opposition-held territory after another. Eastern Aleppo, Ghouta, Daraa: hundreds of thousands of people were bussed northward on the Syrian government's tell-tale green buses.

As the influx of displaced people continued to increase, shelter grew scarce. IDP camps along the Syrian-Turkish border swelled in size, with a sea of blue-topped tents visible from the air. Idlib soon became home to millions of displaced Syrians, counting for at least half the entire population in the northwest.

Ayman Hameed left al-Waer, a district in the northern Homs countryside, in spring 2017, after a Russian-mediated deal saw up to 15,000 fighters and civilians evacuate the last rebel-held area of a city once known as the "capital of the Syrian revolution."

"Initially, we set up in a camp near the village of Miznaz, where there was a temporary camp for the displaced," Hameed remembers.

A former detainee in Assad's prisons, he felt safer after leaving al-Waer, even if his notion of safety was a relative one.

"Idlib became a sanctuary for the displaced from across Syria because there was nowhere else to find safety," Hameed says. "Most of the displaced in the northwest have been displaced more than once."

However, the most recent displacements mean that IDPs who've fled once, twice or even three times before are now doing so all over again.

Last month, Ayman was forced to flee once again when the Syrian army and its allies bore down on Miznaz from the east.

"The village became a frontline between opposition factions and the Syrian regime, so everyone was displaced … towards the western Idlib countryside," Hameed says.

Others driven to Idlib have set down roots in their new home and have managed to stay put for now. But the threat of being uprooted once more looms.

At least the sound of the bombs were gone.

Originally from Eastern Ghouta, Huda Khayti came to see Idlib as something of a fresh start. She boarded evacuation buses from the sprawling Damascus suburb in spring 2018, not long before pro-government forces retook the entire area in April of that year.

"After the martyrdom of my brother, our father started having health problems. Since we couldn't go to Damascus, we left in the very first displacement wave from Eastern Ghouta," Khayti says. "I've been here for almost two years now."

Khayti remembers thinking of the northwest as somewhere away from the Assad regime, its security forces, its threats. The area was close to the Turkish border, which would hopefully guarantee some form of protection.

They came with almost nothing, Huda remembers, but at least the sound of bombs were behind them.

After arriving in the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, Khayti opened a women's center similar to the ones she had run in Ghouta, offering courses to women in literacy, English, computing, and handicrafts. Her neighbors spoke in various accents: from rural Damascus to Aleppo, Homs to Daraa. Damascene restaurants with far-off names remembered her former home.

The city of Idlib has largely been spared the worst of the violence unfolding a few kilometers away in the countryside, although Syrian and Russian warplanes have repeatedly targeted the city with airstrikes in recent days. But the speed of the advances further south and east, which in recent weeks has seen the fall of major towns such as Maarat Numan and Saraqeb, has left residents unsure about how long the situation will hold. A major pushback by Turkish-backed rebels supported with artillery and air support from Turkey has retaken Saraqeb since last week. However, it remains to be seen how Syria — and particularly its Russian allies — will respond.

"I didn't want our lives to go back to how they were in Ghouta; but now, that life is returning to us," Khayti says. "I'm always scared that a fighter jet might start bombing wherever I am in the city. And these days, I'm left thinking, if there's a military campaign … where would we go?"

Almost everyone is asking themselves the same question.

The government offensive in the northwest has displaced nearly a million people in a little over two months. But unlike the negotiated surrender of a number of towns and neighborhoods over the past few years, those forced from their homes this time find themselves on the run, with nowhere to go.

Memories of home are replaced with cinder blocks.

Families flee by foot through snowy hills under cover of darkness, taking refuge under trees for lack of shelter in the camps. Flatbed trucks are stacked high with the basic needs for survival: blankets, bedding and cooking equipment. Memories of home are replaced with cinder blocks and tent canvas.

The mass displacement has taken on a chaotic, Nakba-like quality. Many hundreds of thousands fleeing one by one, family by family.

Aid worker Abu Ibrahim and his family fled from their home in the northern Hama countryside last year. Their journey was an all-too familiar one in Syria — escaping on foot at night to evade aerial bombing, and getting whatever transport they could find during the day, always heading north.

Eventually, the family reached Sarmada, a northern Idlib town close to the Turkish border, where Abu Ibrahim works with displaced families in the camps.

"Now, every town holds several times the number of its former inhabitants," Abu Ibrahim says. "A village that once accommodated 5,000 families now has 15,000 families — residents, those previously displaced, and now the new IDPs as well."

"One house might contain several families, and sometimes in one room you'll find two or more families, as is the case in some of the tents," he says.

The camps in these border areas are now so over-capacity that people struggle to fulfill the most basic of needs: keeping warm, feeding their families, staying alive. Children are freezing to death in the harsh winter cold. At one point, Abu Ibrahim tells the story of one family who suffocated from the fumes coming from the coal stove they had placed inside their tent.

"Every day we hear appeals from families in the camps — including urgent humanitarian cases — but you can hardly find anyone to respond to these cases," Abu Ibrahim adds.

The fate of millions in Syria's northwest remains to be seen. Turkey appears determined to halt pro-government advances through either the threat of military force or negotiations with Russia. Analysts suggest that it is those two countries that will decide what ultimately happens next.

What is clear is that Idlib is a refuge no more.

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