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NY Times Op-Ed, Sept. 4, 2019
The Death Blow Is Coming for Syrian Democracy
By Leila Al-Shami.
The Syrian regime is determined to reconquer all of the territory it has
lost. Aided by Russian bombers and Iranian troops, and emboldened by its
success in terrorizing the populations of Ghouta and Daraa into
submission, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now preparing to
attack Idlib, the last remaining province outside of his control. Idlib
is home to some three million people, about half of them displaced, or
forcibly evacuated, to the province from elsewhere. Many are crowded
into unsanitary camps or sleeping in the open.
In recent days, regime troops have massed on Idlib’s border and leaflets
have been dropped on residential areas calling on Syrians to accept
“reconciliation” or face the consequences. Meanwhile, Russia has been
sending reinforcements to its naval base in Tartus.
The Syrian troika — Russia, Iran and Turkey — designated Idlib a
“de-escalation zone” last year. But what happens there next could
potentially undermine the so-far mutually beneficial agreement among the
De-escalation in Idlib genuinely serves Turkey’s interests: It keeps
both the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime away from the border, it
preserves Turkey’s relevance to a long-term settlement, and it houses
Syrians who would otherwise try to join the 3.5 million refugees already
in Turkey. Turkey has shown its commitment by setting up observation
posts around the province and by establishing the National Liberation
Front, an amalgam of Free Army and Islamist militias that follow Turkish
orders. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, have always seen the
de-escalation zones as tactical and temporary. Just as Daraa and Ghouta
were abandoned, so (they hope) Idlib will be returned to Mr. Assad’s
The Syrian regime and its allies justify their coming attack on Idlib by
saying that they want to root out jihadists. Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham,
which is led by the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, dominates some 60 percent
of the province and has an estimated 10,000 fighters, according to the
United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The repeated
descriptions of Idlib as a “terrorist hotbed” support the regime’s
narrative that all opposition to its rule consists of terrorist groups;
it also absolves the international community of any responsibility to
But this characterization of the province is inaccurate. The people of
Idlib have been at the forefront of the struggle against Hay’at Tahrir
Al Sham, or H.T.S. Since Idlib’s liberation from the regime — partially
in 2012 and then fully in 2015 — many of its citizens worked to build a
free society that reflected the values of the revolution. According to
researchers, more than 150 local councils have been established to
administer basic services in the province; many held the first free
elections in decades. Long-repressed civil society witnessed a rebirth.
Independent news media, like the popular Radio Fresh, were set up to
challenge the regime’s monopoly on information. Women’s centers grew,
empowering women to participate in politics and the economy.
H.T.S. has threatened these hard-won achievements. The group has tried
to embed itself within the local population. Since the fall of Aleppo in
2016, it has intensified its attempts to impose its ideology by taking
over local institutions and establishing Shariah courts. It’s been
ruthless with its perceived opponents. In December, it arrested four
prominent activists displaced to Idlib from Madaya, ostensibly on
charges of “media work against H.T.S.” Raed Fares, one of the founders
of Radio Fresh, survived an assassination attempt, as did Ghalya Rahal,
who established the Mazaya Organization, which runs eight women’s
centers. Fighting between H.T.S. and other rebel groups has left many
civilians dead, and a spate of assassinations and kidnappings for ransom
has left the local population fearful and angry.
Syrians did not risk their lives and rise up against Mr. Assad’s
dictatorship to replace it with another. Many local councils issued
statements rejecting H.T.S.’s authority in local governance or declaring
their neutrality in fighting between rebel groups. Hundreds of local
activists coordinated opposition to H.T.S.’s control and called for
demilitarization of their communities through media campaigns and public
demonstrations. Courageously, they replaced the black jihadist flag with
the flag of the revolution. In April, medical workers held protests
against infighting and kidnapping. Women organized against H.T.S.’s
discriminatory edicts, such as the imposition of strict dress codes and
requiring widows to live with a close male relative.
The regime’s reconquest of Ghouta, Daraa and other areas has been
accompanied by gross human rights violations. There have been waves of
arrests of perceived dissidents. Men have been forcibly conscripted into
the regime’s army. Many have been made to sign documents that they would
not engage in protests or anti-regime activity and have been pressured
to submit information about rebel groups. Journalists, humanitarian
workers and opposition activists live in fear of being targeted.
The reconquest of Idlib would doubtless lead to the same consequences.
The civil activism that operates in the light would be crushed, and
promising democratic experiments would be eradicated, leaving extremists
to flourish in the dark.
While a strong civil society is one of the best defenders against the
spread of extremism, bombing campaigns and state-led terror risk
increasing the popular appeal of jihadist groups. Yet today, key donors
to Syrian civil society, such as the United States and Britain, are
withdrawing funding for Syrian organizations in Idlib for fear it could
fall into terrorist hands. Given the enormity of the humanitarian crisis
that will most likely unfold, the withdrawal of desperately needed
assistance is likely to further compound the suffering of civilians.
Worst of all, there is a growing international consensus that the regime
is the best solution for the devastation it has wrought. The
international community is now shifting its focus toward reconstruction,
rehabilitating the regime through rewarding those responsible for the
country’s devastation, and pressuring refugees to return to a country
where their safety is far from assured.
The people of Idlib are aware that they will probably be abandoned to a
fate similar to their countrymen in Daraa and Ghouta. Anger at their
betrayal by the supposed democratic powers, already deeply rooted, is
growing. The residents understand that those who favor “stability” at
any price perceive their continued resistance as an inconvenience. But
the resumption of the regime’s control in Idlib will not lead to peace,
and still less to stability. It will eradicate the democratic
alternative to tyranny, leaving the jihadists — who thrive on violence,
oppression and foreign occupation — as the last men standing, to
constitute a long-term threat to the region and the world.
Leila Al-Shami (@LeilaShami) is a co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians
in Revolution and War.”
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