Analysis |

In Syria's 'Safe Spaces,' Tens of Thousands Are Held Hostage

Displaced Syrian civilians who were supposed to find refuge in the country's de-escalated areas are held hostages in the unsolved dispute between Russia, Syria and Turkey. And the world stands by

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Displaced Syrians sit in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the jihadist-held northern Idlib province, May 8, 2019.
Displaced Syrians sit in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in the jihadist-held northern Idlib province, May 8, 2019. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The convoluted wording used to describe the Syrian front has created two ridiculous terms: “de-escalation zones” and “demilitarized zones.” These definitions were intended to describe those areas in Syria where Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey have agreed to maintain as relatively safe spaces in which hundreds of thousands of refugees can find a small amount of quiet from the bombings and violent clashes and at least survive until an agreed upon arrangement is found for the country.

But the harsh reports coming out of these de-escalated areas in the Idlib region, where almost three million civilians live along with tens of thousands of armed rebels who have concentrated in the city of Idlib and its surrounding areas testify to the enormous distance between the intentions and reality. In the first week of May, at least 150,000 civilians fled the region because of the heavy bombardment by the Syrian army and the airstrikes by the Russian air force. Some estimates speak of twice that number.

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These civilians are trying to find shelter in the orchards and olive groves near the Turkish border. Some do not even have blankets or mats to place their few possessions on, and certainly not any form of kerosene or gas burners to cook on. Food supplies arrive rarely, about 12 medical clinics have been destroyed in the bombings, dozens have been killed, schools have closed and three hospitals are not operating. People in the region report that local battles between rebel militias and Syrian army forces are a daily occurrence, even in the so-called demilitarized zones.

It would seem that these are the final battles, the remnants of the armed resistance of the rebels and the limited efforts of the Assad regime and its allies to recover control of the last province still in rebel hands. In September 2018, an agreement was signed that gave Turkey responsibility to empty the province of the armed militias and in particular the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the heir of the Al-Nusra Front that is the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria.

Turkish channel TRT's coverage of the humanitarian situation in Idlib

Turkey, which pressured Russia and Syria to avoid a broad military campaign that could have caused an enormous wave of refugees who would flee into Turkey, committed to acting to remove the weapons and armed rebels through diplomatic means. But the extension it received to do so ended months ago and the Russian and Syrian pressure was renewed in full force.

Turkey, however, is doing its part to fulfill its commitment; it lures militia fighters with monthly installments of $100 to join "its" militias that are part of the al-Sham Brigade, so one large militia could be created.

File photo: Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) clear rubble to open a road following reported shelling on the village of Ibdita in the Idlib province, May 8, 2019.Credit: AFP

Due to severe shortage in funding sources, many of the rebels have agreed to take Turkey up on its offer, with some of them handing over their weapons to Turkish forces. But, there are still dozens of rebels who refuse to renounce their independent fighting. Some of them, especially the Al-Nusra militants, have already created stable income sources in the form of taxes that they collect from the population that is under their control, transit fees they charge to go through the checkpoints that surround the Idlib province and separate it from the areas seized by the Syrian army, controlling the fuel prices and the sale of other basic necessities. They also resort to robbery and looting of homes in the region.

In several towns in the Idlib province, residents report of daily robberies at gun point and attacks on passerby, which led many of the residents to abandon their homes and move to more remote areas. Meanwhile, other militia fighters are trying to leave their militias and find a livelihood. An Idlib resident, Ali al-Rali, told the investigative Drag website that after serving six years in the Free Syrian Army, he decided to leave it and open a small carwash business. He earns $200 a month in his new job, a relatively high sum in comparison to his salary in his days as a militia fighter, but still far from providing his basic needs.

These citizens do not have the privilege of receiving food nor medications supplied by international aid organizations due to the difficulties of reaching their remote areas and the fact the aid convoys fear being robbed or attacked on their way there.

The decision-makers in the United Nations and in Arab countries don't care about those displaced from their homes, or at least, they don't care enough to act on it. These are civilians who are held hostages in the unsolved dispute between Turkey and Russia and Syria. The Irony is that Russia demands Western countries to encourage the refugees who fled to their territories to return to Syria as part of the "normalization" and recognition the civil war has ended and no longer poses a threat to Syrian civilians.

The return of the refugees is important to Syria and Russia since it will help put in motion Syria's rehabilitation processes, which will require Syrian manpower. However, European countries as well as Turkey are not in a rush to comply with Russia and Syria's demands.

They stipulate the return of the refugees by the establishment of a stable and agreed-upon regime in Syria, by providing guarantees for the safety of the refugees and by reaching agreements on how to invest the money donated to the rehabilitation of the country. These countries insist that any political solution be based on the agreements reached at the Geneva Refugee Convention in 2012 and be implemented according to the UN resolutions that were adopted as a continuation to the Geneva agreements.

Russia, Turkey and Iran reject this demand and aspire to implement the Astana Convention agreements signed by all three of them. However, the Astana agreements also fail to pass the test of reality since they have created an inner circle of controversy between Turkey and Syria regarding the status of the Syrian Kurds.

The displaced Syrians in the Idlib region and the Syrian refugees around the world currently don't have a shred of hope of returning to their homes. "Only provide us with tents and mats. We'll manage with the food," says a woman that found shelter in an olive grove. She can only take solace in the fact winter is over and that spring has arrived.

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