Will Idlib’s displaced return under government pressure?

The Syrian regime is accusing the opposition of preventing the return of the displaced in northern Hama through the recently opened Abu al-Duhur crossing.

al-monitor A displaced Syrian family sits in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria, May 16, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Sep 30, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — Syrian government forces announced Sept. 14 the opening of Abu al-Duhur crossing that connects the opposition-held areas and those under the government’s control in the eastern countryside of Idlib. Ever since, no displaced civilians have crossed it. The crossing was opened to allow displaced Syrians to return to their homes in northern Hama countryside and Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, which the government seized in August.

Government forces accuse the opposition of preventing displaced families from reaching Abu al-Duhur crossing and returning to their regions. On Sept. 20, the state news agency SANA reported that “terrorist organizations” continue, for the eighth day in a row, “using civilians as human shields in their areas of deployment in Idlib province and are escalating their criminal practices to prevent civilians from reaching Abu al-Duhur crossing in the southeastern countryside to leave their [the opposition’s] areas of control.”

No change has been reported as of the time of this writing. The crossing remains open, but none of the displaced civilians living in camps in opposition-controlled areas in northern Idlib have crossed it. 

The government forces opened Abu al-Duhur crossing after making field advances against the opposition and controlling a large number of towns and villages in northern Hama and southern Idlib. Their tactics resembled to some extent those they used in their wide-scale attacks to control Daraa or eastern Ghouta. Russia opened crossings for displaced civilians to leave through from eastern Ghouta in February 2017 during the government’s military operations. The government’s military operations were usually coupled with opening the crossings for civilians to return to their towns after the regime gained control of them.

The Humanitarian Response Team, a Syria-based group of activists following up on the displaced issue, said in a Sept. 12 press release that the Syrian government is promoting the opening of Abu al-Duhur crossing to push civilians to leave the areas under opposition control and return to government-controlled areas. 

Tareq al-Idlibi, spokesman for the Humanitarian Response Team in Syria, told Al-Monitor, “The government forces and their media websites began talking about their intention to open Abu al-Duhur crossing as of early September, and they officially announced it Sept. 14. We expected such a step that would reflect a compassionate image of the government and its allies with displaced civilians, although it was responsible for their displacement and destruction of their houses with land and air raids and military operations since early May.”

It seems government forces and their allies want the displaced to return to their towns in northern Hama and Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, since those displaced live in camps near the Turkish-Syrian borders in northern Idlib and constitute a pressure card that would aid the opposition if the government forces continue their military operations to take full control of Idlib. The large number of displaced people would protest a potential regime offensive and approach the Turkish borders, which would call for an international stance to stop any military operation of the government forces and their allies.

Although the United Nations put the number of people who were forced from their areas since April during the government offensive in Idlib at 400,000, more people are believed to have been displaced, given the high number of people that are crowded in the camps. 

Yafa al-Hamawe, a civil activist from Kafr Zita in northern Hama, told Al-Monitor, “Government forces and their Russian allies want to deprive the opposition of this pressure card — the large numbers of displaced near the Turkish borders — to continue their military operations later. They are also promoting themselves for allowing and facilitating the return of civilians to their towns. Such a message reassures European countries that fear a new wave of refugees due to military operations of the Syrian government in Idlib.”

Mohamad Rasheed, a member of the media bureau at the Free Syrian Army-affiliated National Front for Liberation, said that the government forces are falsely accusing the opposition of preventing displaced civilians from crossing through Abu al-Duhur crossing and returning to their areas in northern Hama. 

Rasheed told Al-Monitor, “The opposition factions did not forbid civilians from returning. Civilians did not return because they support the opposition and do not trust the governmental forces and Russia. Nothing would guarantee their safety if they decide to return to their towns and cities, which are now under the government’s control. The cities and towns in northern Hama, which the government recently seized, lack all life components because of the battles and heavy air raids and land attacks. Most of their vital facilities are destroyed.”

Mohamad al-Sayed, a civilian from Morek town in Hama’s northern countryside who is displaced and lives with his family in a camp in Harem city in the northern countryside of Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “I cannot think of returning to my city, which is under the control of the government and Russian forces. I do not trust their promises, and I would be jeopardizing my life and my family’s life if we decide to return. I also can't return because I do not have the money to restore my house that the Russian shelling destroyed.”

Sayed added, “Most displaced families from cities and towns in northern Hama countryside do not want to return. Nobody is blocking their path to Abu al-Duhur crossing, as per the government’s narrative. The displaced can't return because they are afraid of arrests and perhaps killings. Pro-regime militias and Russia — which are all over the area — want revenge.”

It seems that the government forces and their allied militias are unable to lure the displaced into their areas in northern Hama. And if any displaced families want to return, the opposition will most likely not allow them as it realizes the importance of foiling the government’s plans and keeping the biggest number of displaced in its areas of control in Idlib.

On Sept. 26, Russia asked for Turkey’s help in the return of the displaced from opposition areas in Idlib to their towns in northern Hama and southern Idlib, according to the spokesperson for the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria at Khmeimim air base in Latakia.

Halid Kutayni, an officer who defected from the Syrian army and was displaced from Khan Sheikhoun and is now moving between Turkey and Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Russia is trying to convince Turkey of the importance of the return of the displaced to the areas that the government seized. Russia wants Turkey to pressure the opposition on this matter to push the displaced to return. I do not think Turkey will oblige, because it does not really want the plans of Russia and the government forces to succeed.”

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