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Apocalypse later

With Syria’s Idlib offensive on hold, a civil war may be ending or a new global conflict may be beginning

Apocalypse later

Syrian men ride a motorcycle past heavily damaged buildings in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, in the north of Idlib province on Sept. 27. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

For weeks reports suggested Syria’s 7-year-old civil war could come to a conclusive—and potentially apocalyptic—closing act in the western province of Idlib. “Russia softens up west for bloodbath,” “Drones crowd Idlib skies,” and “War in Idlib,” went the headlines. Residents sought ways to sell their property and furniture to fund desperate escapes. Some prepared underground hideouts, away from the Syrian regime’s dreaded barrel bombs. 

German reporter Christoph Reuter described the province of 3 million people “waiting with bated breath, listening for the sounds of approaching fighter jets, those harbingers of death.” The battle to liberate Idlib, said Australia-based analyst and researcher Elizabeth Kendal, “is destined to be the largest battle of the Syrian war.” China announced it was sending military advisers, adding to the array of named and unnamed units from the region and well beyond. UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” with perhaps 800,000 people forced to flee in the event of an attack. 

Then the truly unthinkable happened. On Sept. 17 the Russians and Turks reached an agreement to call off the battle. Meeting at Sochi, the Black Sea resort that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, the two rivals agreed to create a demilitarized corridor, roughly 10 miles wide, along the front lines surrounding the province. All sides would hold off attacks. Rebels in the zone under Turkish control could stay, but jihadist groups among them must leave, all by Oct. 15 and all under watch of Turkish military and Russian forces. 

As September turned to October, the uneasy truce lingered and some Idlib residents began to hope again. Merchants returned to their storefronts, while farmers bought seed and fertilizer to plant winter crops. 

But expert observers are skeptical any temporary agreement can be turned into lasting peace—or perhaps even forestall a final and catastrophic battle. No Syrians were invited to the Sochi table, though the Syrian Foreign Ministry praised the agreement. 

Life for many Syrians remains grim. Idlib’s population has doubled in size with civilians displaced by fighting elsewhere or forcibly relocated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Many face severe water and food shortages and are sleeping out in the open. 

War may be winding down in some parts of the country, but the historically tenacious Christian minority is under increasing pressure from all sides. A September attack on a town bordering Idlib left 12 Christians dead. 

Given the many forces poised to fight for the province, the question is: Can Idlib be Syria’s last battle? Or will it become a new chapter in a wider global conflict?

War in Syria is entering its eighth winter. With more than 500,000 Syrians dead, 6.2 million Syrians are displaced within the country—the largest internally displaced population in the world. Another 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country altogether. Yet somehow since 2017 the front lines of fighting have solidified, largely the result of outside forces. With Russian and Iranian military support, the Assad regime has held or recaptured about two-thirds of the country, stretching from its southern border and Damascus, the capital, to Aleppo in the north. 

In the far north the Syrian Democratic Forces control nearly another one-third of Syria in what’s called a Democratic Self-Administration zone, or DSA, with backing from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other coalition partners. 

West of the DSA, Turkish forces are stationed inside Syria, controlling about a 400-square-mile border area that includes Afrin and fronts Idlib. That leaves only Idlib province and several other pockets near the Iraqi border in the hands of rebel and jihadist groups.

 

IDLIB PROVINCE may prove a fitting climax to a war whose first violent clashes between anti-government protesters and the Syrian army began there. In June 2011 in the city of Jisr ash-Shugur, demonstrators set fire to a building and took control of a police station, seizing weapons and erecting blockades. Syrian forces fought back using heavy weapons and shelling residential areas. Idlib residents fled to Turkey.

What happened in the province became a pattern throughout the country. Foes of Assad, including leading figures from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, provided backing for a growing resistance movement across Syria’s 14 provinces. Together with top officers who defected from the Syrian army (and who for a time had U.S. support under the Obama administration), they launched the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which gradually formed military councils across the country linked by sat phones, rechargeable 3G internet packs, and Skype chat rooms. Turkey’s border with Idlib remained open, feeding foreign jihadist fighters into the fray. By the summer of 2012, the FSA military council in Idlib alone had 16 separate rebel groups under its domain.  

Then and now, the groups hold disparate agendas with allegiance to divergent outside sponsors. They range from secular rebel groups chiefly seeking an Assad replacement to hardcore jihadist groups hoping to plant an Islamic regime in Syria. The joke among Syrians: Ask two Syrians whom they support in the conflict, and you will get three answers.

Across the spectrum, what the groups have in common is hatred toward the Assad regime. By 2015 Idlib was a stronghold for groups linked to al-Qaeda. Efforts by the United States and others to rid the country of ISIS did less to eradicate similar groups, and Idlib currently is under the domination of the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

A potential showdown adds one more layer of uncertainty for Syria’s already threatened Christians. Confidence in the Assad regime, which many traditional church leaders saw as their protector, has eroded with the long war. Syria’s pre-war Christian population was just under 2 million, and no one is sure how many remain in the country. Church leaders suggest it is under 400,000, as ISIS in particular, but also other militants, targeted Christian communities. The ongoing presence of Muslim hard-liners like Iran supporting Assad, plus Saudi elements and Turkish forces supporting rebels, makes it hard to imagine any guarantees for Christians’ survival.  

Militants burned and tore down two historic churches in Raqqa, the northern city ISIS designated the center of its caliphate in 2014. ISIS and other terror groups destroyed at least six Armenian churches; among them, a church and museum complex in Deir Ezzor built as a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Holocaust. 

Besides the damage to physical structures in areas liberated from ISIS over the past year, whole Christian communities have been decimated and left without protection. In Syria’s northeast, ISIS in 2015 attacked dozens of Christian villages, kidnapping more than 200 residents and eventually videotaping the execution of three men before releasing others. The Khabur River region was home in 2011 to 10,000 Christians, but now numbers about 900 residents, its dozens of villages reduced to two showing up on Google Maps. Churches that once overflowed with worshippers sit in heaps of rubble. Only one holds regular services.

Hussein Malla/AP

A cross lies in the rubble of a destroyed church that was blown up by Islamic State militants in 2015, in the deserted village of Tal Jazeera, northern Syria. Tal Jazeera is one of more than 30 villages along the Khabur River that were destroyed by Islamic State group militants. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Besides the losses are ongoing threats. In Damascus Iran is using its influence to pressure Christians to leave the Old City. One Christian pastor, who asked not to be identified because of threats to his church, told me agents show up at Christian homes off Straight Street, saying, “I heard you want to sell your home.” When the owner replies that it’s not true, the agent offers a high sum and promises to return, making repeated offers until residents feel pressured to sell and go. “They are investing resources into pushing Christians away, people who have lived in Syria for generations,” the pastor said.

Problems are not only in Assad-controlled areas. In the northern Democratic Self-Administration area, a dispute arose over whether authorities could force church-sponsored schools to use specific curriculum. Some schools in the Qamishli area temporarily closed as a result. But the conflict revealed the competing views about political alignments for churches and the fears for survival with changing powers. Some in the Syriac Orthodox Church, long in close relationship with the Assad regime, wanted to continue using government (Arab and Islamic) curriculum. Others wanted to adopt a new curriculum called “Olaf Tao” (“A to Z” in Syriac). It includes the Christian and multiethnic history of Syria rather than “Arabized” texts adopted by the Baathist Party of Assad, and is available in Syriac rather than only Arabic.

Those who protested—actually taking to the streets in August—included non-Christian Arabs and Kurds who used the dispute as an opportunity to oppose the self-administration groups, which include Christian, Arab, and Kurdish leaders. “The Christians in Syria were not aware of many details, but now that they know, they are backing ‘Olaf Tao’ and they want the new books,” said Rima Tuezuen of the European Syriac Union, an opposition support group.

Authorities never imposed a Kurdish-language curriculum on the Syriac schools, Tuezuen said, though some news outlets reported it, and all schools but one are now open, using the curriculum of their choice, she said. 

 

THE UNITED STATES has approximately 2,200 troops stationed in the north bordering the DSA near Manbij, playing a decidedly low-key role. President Donald Trump in August canceled $230 million in stabilization assistance appropriated for the northeast DSA zone. In an Aug. 18 tweet, Trump called the aid “ridiculous,” and said “Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead.”

That stance forces Christians and other minority groups to take more seriously the roles of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, even as Christians became the first casualties in the tense standoff over Idlib. Mhardeh sits on the edge of the province, a mostly Christian city with four churches and a monastery, and with a nearby electrical substation often fought over by competing rebel groups. 

Mhardeh has a defense force of about 200 fighters who have fought alongside the Syrian army, but they were no match for a September rebel offensive. Missile fire killed 10 civilians on Sept. 14, including six children, and two more residents died of injuries in the hospital later. One man lost his mother, his wife, and his three children when a missile hit his house, according to Middle East Eye. 

The attack showed the vulnerability for Christians on any side in the war, and the fragile Idlib. The war’s outcome likely will be determined by outside forces—not those with property, family, and country at stake. Russia and Turkey could agree to go jointly after HTS, ridding Assad of key jihadists while further obligating him to two powers eager for greater influence in the Middle East. But in the confines of Syria with its proliferation of fighters, the lead powers also could blunder into a much wider war.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

Comments

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Mon, 10/08/2018 10:29 pm

    Thanks for keeping us informed on the Christians in Syria. It bothers me too the uncertainty they face! We serve a good and powerful God so let us appeal to him to provide a way for the Christians of Syria and may God grant our government to be more flexible in protecting them too.