"People in Idlib can either stay and stare death in the eye, or they can try to cross the Turkish border in hopes of finding safety and a better life," says Syrian Mustafa Dahnon as he speaks into his camera in a short video he posted on Twitter.
The video was shot this past weekend, as several thousand people gathered at the Syrian-Turkish border under the motto "From Idlib to Berlin," in hopes of getting the international community to recognize their plight and do something to help them. The people gathered here feel as if the whole world has abandoned them.
Assad's 'final battle'
Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops and their Russian allies have been bombing the civilian population of Idlib for two months. The northwestern Syrian province is the last spot on the map to be controlled by rebels and extremists, and strongman Assad is determined to change that.
With Russian air support, Assad's troops have advanced through the region, capturing several cities along the way — such as Maarat al-Numan, which was bombed into submission, leaving it almost entirely devoid of inhabitants.
Assad has called his offensive "the final battle." One of his aims seems to be the destruction of all infrastructure in the province. "A considerable number of hospitals have been partially or completely destroyed," explains Cristian Reynders of the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
A project coordinator in northern Idlib, Reynders says there are ever fewer places for people to receive desperately needed help: "The further these people have to travel to get medical assistance the greater the fear their condition may worsen or they may even die along the way."
Medical authorities in Idlib say there are no longer any clinics left in the south of the province. When the southern city of Ariha's hospital was bombarded recently, at least 10 civilians were killed. Russia denies having anything to do with the incident.
Escalation between government forces and Turkey
Assad and his Russian allies have set the objective of wresting control of the last rebel refuges in the country from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — which grew out of a Syrian al-Qaeda offshoot — and entirely destroying the group in the process. According to James Jeffrey, US special representative for Syria engagement, the Syrians and Russians have flown more than 200 bombing sorties targeting civilians over the past few days.
Turkey, which is allied with rebel forces in Idlib, recently erected 12 observation posts in the province to monitor a ceasefire. Yet, thus far, attempts by Assad's Russian protectors and Turkey to agree to that cessation have failed to produce results.
Now, Turkey's Ministry of National Defense says a recent Syrian attack on a Turkish convoy killed five of its soldiers and a civilian contractor who was with them. Authorities in Ankara say the Syrians attacked in full knowledge of the Turkish forces' position.
Turkey wants a seat at the table
Turkey retaliated with a counterattack that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims killed as many as 35 Syrian troops. Erdogan said the original attack could not be left unanswered, proclaiming, "We will continue to demand an accounting."
Speaking to Russia, the Turkish leader said, "Don't get in our way." Russian military authorities say Turkey did not inform them of troop movements, and that is why they came under fire.
Some see the attack as a Russian signal to Turkey that it should refrain from operations beyond its own borders. "But Erdogan looks at himself himself as a guarantor for Syrian opposition forces," says Kristian Brakel, director of the German Green party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul. "And Turkey is also engaged in Idlib because it wants a seat at the negotiating table when the future of Syria is finally decided."
A humanitarian catastrophe
Nevertheless, "Erdogan's biggest concern is that even more desperate Syrians could try to flee to Turkey as a result of Assad's advance," says Brakel. According to the United Nations, some 390,000 people have fled Idlib since early December 2019. In all, a total of 750,000 are believed to have fled Idlib over the past nine months.
Last weekend's march to the border was mainly symbolic, still, some quietly hoped to somehow slip into Turkey. And Turkey expert Brakel says that's not entirely impossible, pointing out that although Turkey has strengthened its border presence, some guards will look the other way for cash.
But most people from Idlib don't have cash, so they are forced to wait at refugee camps along the border — in the cold and rain, and without any medical assistance. UN agencies have long warned of a pending humanitarian crisis.
In a few weeks, the Syrian conflict will enter its tenth year. During that time Bashar Assad has clearly emerged the military victor. Yet Idlib has evaded his grasp, thwarting his plans to control the whole of Syria. And that is why Syrian troops and their Russian allies don't often differentiate between militants and civilians in their quest to bring the region to its knees.