When you ask Idlib’s inhabitants about the description that best characterizes their city, without hesitation many will tell you that it is a forgotten city. The rest of Syria’s population knows little about it, and its name would have remained unknown had it not been for the headlines about popular demonstrations that took place there during the past year. Yet, this forgotten city hides many stories about the birth of a “revolution.” Some consider this birth abnormal, while others see it as the birth of a new Syria.
Entering Idlib may seem like an adventure in and of itself, with bullets whizzing around from all sides and hitting everything in sight. But the decision to cease military operations, from [both] the regime and the opposition, led to a gleam of hope. There was a possibility of visiting the city to get a local view of the events.
In Idlib, things seem to be somewhat different than in other places. While it was relatively easy this time around to pass through the army and security forces’ checkpoints, our young escort to the city warned us that the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) checkpoints would be more difficult to navigate. That is exactly what happened when we were stopped and thoroughly checked before eventually being allowed to enter the city. The process might be compared to a patient just out of recovery, but not discharged from hospital yet.
Life goes on at the bare minimum, with some businesses open while others remain closed due to the ongoing strike. Those that are open quickly close their doors at the first sign of gunfire. Depending on who you ask, the gunfire is either due to a security operation [by government troops], or men from the FSA who pressure businesses into closing their doors to give the general strike or civil disobedience movement more credence. Voluntarily closing the businesses is of course better than threats of being set on fire or losing your entire livelihood, as one store owner said.
Schools, on the other hand, have been abandoned by students and teachers alike; some decided to stay home, others chose to participate in demonstrations and others have decided to carry arms. Government offices remain bastions of tranquility, under varying degrees of armed guard depending on their purpose. The tightest security is around police stations and intelligence headquarters, where streets are blocked with cement barricades, barbed wire and armed troops guard the roads leading to them. They are there to detect any suspicious cars and prevent any bombings, as was the case in Damascus and Aleppo.
This is how the rebellion started and this is what it has become in Idlib province. According to our escort there are two main histories to the events that have engulfed the region. After the massacre that occurred last June, leading to the death of 120 military and security personnel in the Jisr al-Shughur area, the army and security forces responded by launching their own operation. This led to thousands of the town’s inhabitants fleeing to the Turkish border and Idlib’s name being plastered all over media headlines. Accounts vary to the truth behind the massacre, as the regime attributes it to armed gangs ambushing and killing the troops, while the opposition claims that they were executed and buried in mass graves [by the regime] for refusing to fire upon peaceful protesters.
Whatever the case, according to our escort, “this incident was the first spark that led to the region’s inhabitants carrying arms. Many of them escorted their families to Turkey and returned later on. Armed resistance began in the countryside under the banner of the FSA. At first their purpose was to protect the demonstrations. Despite dozens of other villages being far from the border, their rural nature meant that they were lightly armed and thus they came to augment the ranks of army deserters. They did so in Kafranbel, Sarakeb, Harem, Ariha and other villages of Idlib’s countryside where massive demonstrations took place even before the massacre occurred.”
According to verdant Idlib inhabitants, the city used to partake in such activities as “burning photos of late president Hafez al-Assad and current president Bashar al-Assad. Photos that were hanging on government buildings, such as branches of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, were especially targeted. The headquarters [of the Baath Party] was not spared the torch. Even then, the demonstrations were never forcefully quelled until armed insurgents began controlling the area later on.”
One of the region’s inhabitants added that “despite all this action occurring in the countryside, no major demonstrations were held in Idlib city until mid-July of last year when a student was shot dead by security forces on the doorstep of one of the city’s mosques. This led to large demonstrations. They lasted for a good period of time until weapons started entering the city. The army followed and Idlib was trapped in the crossfire of attacks and counterattacks.”
Sons of Idlib: How is a Revolution Made?
Many of Idlib’s youth, or the revolutionary generation as they prefer to be called, openly reject many of the negative aspects that have come to mar the Syrian revolution as a whole, and particularly in Idlib.
Adel, a university student who dropped out of school in order to participate in the “revolution” said: “Our goal is to establish a civil state away from the traditional mentality that ruled the country in the past; but establishing such a state can only be achieved at the hands of the people, and not through external endeavors.” He added: “Unfortunately, there are many who believe in the intentions of major powers. In reality they are built on illusions, spread and marketed to the point of civil war by the regime even before the opposition. This is a regime that silenced any voice of reason that called for action away from violence, and then graced us with meaningless initiatives that it called reforms.”
Another activist commented: “At the beginning of the revolution, Idlib’s inhabitants, and I think the majority of Syrians, appreciated the escalatory stance of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in regard to the Syrian crisis. We appreciated his declaration that he would not allow a repeat of the massacres, or a recurrence of the events that unfolded in Hama. Look at where we are now. A thousand massacres have been perpetrated with Erdogan standing idly by. This led to a wane in his popularity, but Turkey remains the primary destination for those displaced. Some now express their admiration for the Saudi King and the Qatari prime minister after they called for the arming of opposition forces; but, as usual, people will get disappointed when they realize that their calls were nothing more than media bluster. On the other hand, [the Salafist] cleric Adnan al-Arour commands wide popularity, with almost everyone possessing clips of him. Most of his followers mobilize and support the Syrian revolution. In my opinion, this is due to the Syrian revolution’s lack of leadership, which is a negative and positive point at the same time.”
Selim, an activist who documents “victims of the military operations” said: “Arms were forced upon the people as a result of the severe oppression on the part of the army, security agencies and the exacerbating effect of the escalatory extremist language used by both sides. It became impossible to prevent a man who had lost his family from taking arms and confronting the security forces. But the real problem lies in the chaotic manner that weapons are spreading. This gives some people the opportunity to bully others in the name of the revolution; as a result, the revolution was harmed more than it was aided. It is now commonplace to see armed men in the streets wearing the same uniforms as the regular army, with machine guns and light weapons mounted to the cars they drive. These types of things declined slightly after the army’s entrance into Idlib, and after the military operations that took place there, which were dubbed decisive security measures. Following the army’s entrance, many took to the mountains or fled towards the Turkish border. Nevertheless, I cannot deny the presence of the large numbers of army deserters standing guard over the demonstrations, especially those held at night, and the funeral processions of martyrs. These deserters confront the security forces and live in very harsh conditions.”
Selim, who was shot in the leg, added: “I beg you not to believe the reports about money and arms being sent to the revolutionaries. We are but a bargaining chip for the opposition groups abroad who always say: ‘The revolutionaries on the ground know their needs better than we do. These groups conduct large fundraising campaigns whose funds never reach the country.”
This leads us to the issue of medical and food aid; where are they coming from? Yet another activist replied that “they come from individual effort. There are dozens of people in Damascus, Aleppo and Turkey who send us aid, food and medical supplies. Sometimes they reach us while other times they are prevented from doing so. But in the end, they find their way to us through other means, which allows those of us here to distribute them to those who need the aid most. The most dire in need are the field hospitals and the families of martyrs, the wounded and the detained. In winter, the FSA managed to supply the inhabitants with fuel, but things quickly transformed into a business venture when some decided to monopolize its sale. As for gas tanks (whenever they became available, of course), many people believed that their excess price was considered a donation to the rebels; but any other modest efforts by some youth would not have been enough to satisfy demand.”
He added: “All this cannot be compared to another rampant disease: rumor-mongering. All it takes is one real or virtual person to accuse another of being a collaborator or supporter of the regime for dozens of armed men to pounce. They kill the accused and burn down his place of business. This was the case of the pharmacist Samir Kanatry in Maarat al-Numan, who was killed by townsfolk when he was accused of collaborating with security forces. Dozens of people in the city and countryside fell victim to similar incidents, under various guises. It later turned out that many of those accusations were unfounded and came as a result of personal vendettas.”
According to another activist, these incidents “should not compel people to stop supporting the revolution and favor the regime.” The young man considered that “it is possible to instill in the heart of the revolution a movement that shuns fanaticism and intolerance, one that strives towards freedom, equality and holds those who caused the blood bath responsible, regardless of their allegiance or opposition to the regime.”
The Truth About the Forgotten City
One of the city’s physicians recalls: “The regime, 15 years ago, launched a series of festivals to promote tourism in the country. Every Syrian city took part in the celebrations, but the surprise came when the slogan for the city of Idlib was revealed: ‘The Forgotten Cities Festival’ (recalling a number of cities and villages between Aleppo and Idlib whose harsh rocky terrain drove their inhabitants to desert them).”
He further added: “At the time, I did not understand the reason behind this designation. Later, I learned that Idlib, despite the historical meaning of the word (which according to many interpretations ranges from “center of worship” to “center of agriculture”), fell victim to long periods of neglect on the part of the regime. Most development projects went to neighboring cities Aleppo and Latakia. Not even the Turkish neighbor deigned to invest in the city known for its agricultural abundance and great touristic value. Many government officials have conceded that Idlib only survived thanks to border smuggling with Turkey, and they chose to simply forget the visits made by UNESCO delegations and the city’s standing as a world heritage site. All of this led to the area’s neglect and drove many of its youth to desert it and go either to Aleppo or Damascus. It was possible for the regime to change the region’s fate with a single magic word — tourism — which would have given the area an economic advantage over neighboring Aleppo and also over the Turks who knew how to exploit the region.” Another activist chimed in sarcastically: “Nothing was better for Idlib than the regime’s past neglect.”