Idlib: "There Will Be a Very Long and Brutal Fight"

An interview on the work of journalists in Syria and the situation in war-torn Idlib

Etzbach: You founded the Syrian Press Center (SPC) together with others in 2013. What does the SPC do, what did you hope to achieve with it?

Al-Ahmad: I studied journalism and worked as a journalist from 2011 onwards. Before the revolution I briefly worked with the regime’s media, but ended that very quickly because there was no free journalism in Syria. In 2011, after the revolution, I was not only engaged in journalism. We did everything, for example I also worked as a medic. Initially we started the “Hama Media Office”. I was in Hama back then, and we wanted to establish a regional structure with the office that would cover events in Hama (a stronghold of the anti-regime protests in 2011). On the other hand, it was also about training journalists and establishing journalistic standards in their work. In 2013 this office turned into the “Syrian Press Center”. At that point in time I was forced to flee Hama. We then opened offices in Aleppo and Idlib with the goal of reporting not only regionally, but across Syria.

At the beginning our primary goal was to deliver an honest picture of local events and train journalists. With the development of the radical groups and their attempt to incorporate journalists, we began to counter that by trying to strengthen the democratic idea and support local councils, women’s centres, or organizations that work with children. However, the main focus remained training journalists. In 2015 we founded the “Code of Conduct” together with other Syrian journalists’ associations who shared our values, as we all believed that something had to be done against things like fake news and hateful propaganda.

Are there still media offices outside of Idlib today that you work with, or is this work now limited to northwestern Syria?

Until recently we had two offices, one around Hama and one in Idlib. The office in Hama, however, was bombed by the regime and its equipment was stolen. Luckily the journalists who worked there were able to flee to the north in time. At the moment they are trying to establish a new office in Azaz (in northern Syria). Many of our journalists also work from home. Since August 2018 we’ve had an office in Turkey. That was a very conscious decision, because we knew that given the situation in Syria we need an office outside Syria if we want to keep reporting independently. We all work as volunteers, which presents us with some pretty big challenges. Although we’re independent in the sense that we don’t take money from anyone and thus can report about pretty much anything, on the other hand the quality of our work also suffers, as for some things you just need money.

You lived in Idlib until February of this year. Since April the Syrian regime has been waging a brutal military campaign with daily bombings to retake the area still under opposition control. Can you give us a general estimate of the current situation in the Idlib Governorate?

The region was actually declared a de-escalation zone, but since April 2019 it’s clear that the idea of a de-escalation zone has failed. Ground troops have also been deployed on various fronts to take back areas since early May. There’s the front in northern Hama, then there’s the front in Latakia, and the front around Aleppo. But in the area around Latakia, for example, the regime has been totally unable to take back any land, because the geographical conditions there don’t allow it. At the same time, my journalist colleagues on location tell me that the bombings in Hama and Idlib are of an intensity that we’ve never experienced before. Before it was the case that we hid underground when the bombings came, we even had an underground office. But now it’s not that none airplane appears in the sky, but rather 15 airplanes and you don’t know which ones are going to drop bombs. That is to say, it is very difficult to find refuge anywhere. There is a very high concentration of ground troops in Hama, and the highest number of losses both on the regime’s side and among the revolutionary groups. Right now it looks like the regime’s plan is to cut off and besiege the southern part the Idlib Governorate, and in this way shrink the area controlled by the opposition. That would be a siege of over one million people. The consequence would be massive price rises for food and other daily goods, and there would no longer be any connection to the Turkish border. Then it would be fairly easy for the regime to gain control over the area, because at some point the situation will grow so unbearable that the people will be forced to surrender.

The so-called de-escalation zone was originally supposed to be guaranteed by Russia and Turkey. How do you evaluate the role of these two powers after the concept obviously fell apart?

Russia and Turkey acted like guaranteeing powers in the context of the Astana negotiations.The twelfth round of Syria talks were held between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in April 2019. But given that these negotiations were held without involving other powers, the results were very fragile from the outset. We have recently seen that Turkey has delivered anti-tank missiles to allied groups in Idlib, while Russia on the other hand stations military police in Tel Rifaat.A city in northern Aleppo province. In February 2018 the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who controlled Tel Rifaat, struck a deal with Russia on stationing Russian military police in the city.—constituting a clear provocation of Turkey. The tensions between Russia and Turkey show that the Astana Process is over. At the same time, the establishment of de-escalation zones just made it easier for the regime to control the corresponding areas. That became clear last year when the people in al-Ghouta, then in southern Damascus and Daraa and ultimately the region around Homs were forced into a deal and then expelled to Idlib. That is to say, these actually aren’t de-escalation agreements, but rather agreements to facilitate the regime taking over these areas.

Russia is currently playing with the fact that there are refugees and internally displaced persons. It has a strategic way of bombing Hama and Idlib, as it bombs the southern areas and thereby exerts pressure on the people there to flee towards the Turkish border. It’s clear that if pressure emerges on the Turkish border pressure is also exerted on the EU, which is also very sensible to the issue of refugees. Russia’s goal in Syria is definitely to re-legitimize the regime and rebuild the country. At the same time, Russia moves against the population with carpet bombings in order to virtually bomb some areas empty. An area is bombed, the people flee, then it’s bombed again, the people flee further. We saw this recently when Ariha.A city in southern Idlib that was bombed in late May 2019. was attacked, where 40,000 people live, and these people will also be forced to flee north.

What does this mean for the situation in Idlib as a whole? Will it quickly be recaptured? Or will we see a protracted guerrilla war?

I think there will be a very long and brutal fight for Idlib. The reason for this is rooted in the social structures there, but also in the geographical conditions of the region. Without an international agreement for a firm status for the region, the fight for Idlib could last another ten years. Idlib—both the city as well as the Governorate—is an area in which tribal and family structures with intense loyalties are very important. That is the difference to places like Damascus, Aleppo, or even Tartus, where society is much more individualized. At the same time, in Idlib society there is historically a strong tradition of opposition and resistance to the regime. This dates back to Hafiz al-Assad (father and predecessor to Bashar al-Assad) and the 1982 Hama massacre under his watch.

In the media Idlib is portrayed more than anything as a stronghold of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a union of Jihadist militias that is regarded as the successor to the al-Nusra Front and thus close to al-Qaida. What role does HTS actually play in Idlib today, and how did the organization succeed in gaining this significance?

Depicting the movement in Syria as Islamist was one of the regime’s greatest challenges, and they were fairly successful in this. Until 2013 Islamists played no role in the Syrian movement whatsoever, and still the regime continuously attempted to establish this narrative. Only beginning in 2013 did the Islamists have any presence at all, namely when they took over Raqqa. Secondly, it was made easy for the Islamists to acquire weapons, not least through the regime itself, as it was in its interest to strengthen these forces vis-à-vis democratic forces. And thirdly, there were also forms of self-financing supported by the regime. Thus HTS had access to the water, gas, and electricity networks. Those are all factors that helped HTS. At the same time, the West did not support the democratic forces that existed in Syria and could have worked against this. On the other side are Russia and Iran who support the regime massively. When Russia bombs underground hospitals but leaves the headquarters, offices, and training camps of HTS untouched, then it’s clear which forces they’re trying to strengthen.

Which democratic and progressive movements are in Idlib that we in the West can support today? And what, concretely, could we do?

All civil organizations that we have in Idlib today are democratically oriented, some also used to be supported by the European side. If they weren’t active in Idlib today the situation for the people there would be much worse, for these organizations take care of everything as far as everyday life is concerned. There are also political institutions like the local councils, which are found in all small cities and towns and are democratically elected. Every one of these villages has its own representatives and with it a form of self-government. There are institutions in the education and health care sectors that also belong to the democratic spectrum. And of course there are journalists in Syria or in Turkey who work on Syria and need support. For the future we need massive support in order to build up trade unions, for example, but also other associations with a democratic character, for only in this way can we successfully create a Syria that has a future.

Translated by Loren Balhorn.