ALEPPO, Syria — On Jan. 19, the armed Syrian opposition attacked positions of regime forces and their allied Russian-backed fighters in Abu Dafna village in eastern Idlib province. The opposition inflicted casualties on the regime during the battles and mutual bombardment between the two sides, and responded to ground attacks by regime forces in Idlib province.
Regime forces have intensified in recent weeks their ground and air bombing of opposition-held areas in Idlib and western Aleppo provinces, displacing thousands of civilians.
Mohamad Rasheed, an activist based in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The opposition’s attack on Abu Dafna village, in eastern Idlib, came after the opposition spotted large military vehicles and regime forces intending to carry out a ground attack there, so it advanced with a counterattack to thwart the regime’s plans. The opposition then withdrew from the village after dispersing the enemy crowds and thwarting [the regime's] offensive plans.”
Regime forces reportedly opened three crossings Jan. 13 in the northwestern Syria province, and Russian special forces and military police were present on the regime-controlled side to secure the passage of civilians wishing to leave the opposition-held areas.
On Jan. 11, Russia Today quoted Yuri Burenkov, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Syria reconciliation center at Khmeimim air base in Latakia, as saying the crossings were being opened in response to pleas of civilians in Idlib who want to return to their towns that the regime forces recently took control of in southern and eastern Idlib. Two crossings, he said, are at Abu al-Duhur and al-Habit in southeastern Idlib, and one allows entry from Idlib to al-Hadr in southern Aleppo.
However, according to the opposition, the gesture was mere window dressing and no civilians crossed into regime-controlled areas through any of the three crossings, contrary to what media loyal to the Syrian regime and Russia claimed.
“The opening of the crossings by regime forces and Russia is a hoax and a desperate attempt to improve the image of these forces, which were the reason for the displacement of these civilians from their areas during the past few months,” Mohammad Aswad, military commander of the National Liberation Front, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Al-Monitor. Aswad was present in the area near Abu al-Duhur crossing. He told Al-Monitor civilians did not cross into the regime-controlled areas, and the crossing has been closed for over a year.
On Jan. 12, the regime's helicopters had dropped leaflets over Atarib in western Aleppo, as well as over southern Idlib. The regime forces had written on these a call for civilians to leave the area, which they said would be coming under their control.
National Liberation Front military commander First Lt. Abu Yaarob told Al-Monitor, “The scenario of opening the crossings in the Idlib area has been repeated several times by regime forces. These are false [pretenses] of humanitarianism through which they attempt to appear concerned for the lives of civilians and their safe return home. People will not cross, and Russia and the regime forces will once again claim that the opposition prevented people from crossing.”
Indeed, on Jan. 18, Syria's official SANA news agency said, "After six consecutive days since the opening of the humanitarian corridors ... the terrorists committed all criminal means to prevent the people wishing to leave their areas of control and reach safe areas that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces freed from terrorism.”
But humanitarian activist Obaida Dandoush told Al-Monitor the regime's allegations regarding opposition factions preventing civilians from crossing into regime-controlled areas are incorrect. “Civilians have revolted against the regime and do not want to return to its areas. They fled from various provinces and did not want to bow to it. Idlib was their only refuge," he said.NLF official spokesman Capt. Naji Mustafa told Al-Monitor, “The regime is trying to influence the morale of civilians in Idlib province and terrorize them with the propaganda it promotes through the leaflets delivered by its helicopter. It also uses intense air and ground bombing targeting civilian cities and towns. This psychological pressure and bombardment left people with two options: They can either die under regime shelling or go through the crossings.”
He added, “The regime claims that it has opened humanitarian crossings to preserve the safety of civilians, while it is bombing them and turning their homes into rubble.” Civilians know that returning to the regime-controlled areas will expose them to risks, notably detentions and killings in prisons, Mustafa said.
For his part, the commander of the FSA-affiliated Syrian National Army, Capt. Mustafa Maarati, told Al-Monitor, “Idlib had become a refuge for Syrians who refused to surrender to the Syrian regime from other provinces. They would rather die than return to regime-controlled areas. The FSA factions have not prevented any civilian from going through the crossings; the people simply do not want to.”
Meanwhile, Mohamed al-Hallaj, director of the Response Coordinators Team, a nongovernmental organization in Idlib province that helps displaced people, also denied that any civilian had crossed into the regime-controlled areas. “People are afraid to return for a number of reasons, including fear of arrest and conscription, so the crossings have not seen any traffic,” Hallaj told Al-Monitor.
Hallaj said the total population of Idlib province is estimated at roughly 4 million people, as it has become, during the past few years, the only destination for the opposition after regime forces took control of southern Syria, eastern Ghouta and the countryside of Homs and other areas.
Activist Mohammed al-Hussein recently recorded a brief video posted on Facebook rebutting the claim that civilians had used al-Eis/al-Hadr crossing. He told Al-Monitor, “The regime is promoting the return of civilians to its areas, voluntarily, in search of security, but the crossing has not recorded any transit of civilians so far.”