Displaced Syrians in Idlib are facing a cold and harsh winter in the face of continued fighting around Ma'arat Nu'man. Forced into an ever-diminishing piece of land, many of them wonder where they can find escape.
As much of the world prepares to welcome the New Year, the people of Idlib have little to look forward to. The province, which is viewed as the last bastion of the Syrian Opposition, has witnessed severe violence over the course of December, with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) pushing forward towards the town of Ma’arat Nu’man, backed by heavy shelling and airstrikes across the region. The United Nations estimates that some 235,000 people have been displaced over the past two weeks alone, with many of them exposed to the elements and forced into an ever-shrinking amounts of land. For many of them, the question is the same: Where is the escape?
Oftentimes, “escape” is found in the towns of Ariha, Saraqib and the provincial capital of Idlib City itself. However, with the region already housing around 3.5 million people, many of whom were already displaced from other parts of Syria, the available sanctuaries are stretched to the limits, forcing many of the displaced people to camp outside along the Turkish border despite cold weather and heavy rains. Furthermore, towns such as Saraqib, in particular, are witnessing a second wave of displacement amidst rumours of the SAA planning to launch a new offensive around it. This is a pattern that repeated in Ma’arat Nu’man itself, with many people from Khan Sheikhoun having taken sanctuary there during the SAA offensive around the town in the summer.
For those displaced, the options are running out and they are unsure where they can go to for safety. The Turkish border remains overcrowded and supplies are few. Turkey itself is increasingly out of reach due to the country tightening its rules around refugees. In turn, the areas under the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) experience chronic insecurity due to infighting and repeated bombings.
Signing a reconciliation agreement with the Syrian Government is an option. However, many of those who did sign such agreements have been arrested or conscripted nevertheless, making reconciliation a gamble at best. Furthermore, the economic situation in Government-held areas are worse than those in Idlib due to sanctions and the crash of the Syrian Pound, leaving it uncertain how one will make a living.
Another option is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA). However, the political situation in the region remains tense while widespread destruction across Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour and limited resources is causing reconstruction to go sluggishly. ISIS also continues its assassinations and attacks, trying to drive a wedge between the region’s Kurdish and Arab population. Although the AA recently announced that its willing to welcome displaced people from Idlib, getting there through SNA and SAA held areas is a difficult and expensive journey and there is no promise that the welcome will be warm.
With the SAA and the former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) still at each others’ throats around Ma’arat Nu’man, there are few thoughts for the many Syrians caught in the crossfire.