Syrian North According to Its Inhabitants

Image: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

Reclining on his rusty bicycle, Ibrahim turns left and right, perhaps finding in the neighborhood he chose in his tour today something to fill his worn-out bag, which he used to carry on his shoulder for three years. He hopes that the neighborhood’s waste from recyclable glass and plastic containers will be better than yesterday. In his rented house on the outskirts of Idlib city, there are many people to feed, and it’s only his hard daily work can feed them.

How is the situation in Idlib?

The situation of this family that has been displaced from eastern Ghouta is like the situation of thousands of families that chose Idlib and its countryside to settle. Some of them chose it voluntarily, hoping for the lost freedom, and some were forcibly displaced by the Syrian regime and its allies.

In his conversation with Mena Research and Study Centre, Ibrahim, previously government employee, says that he’s like thousands of people who were forced to leave Eastern Ghouta in February 2018, after refusing the settlement with the Syrian regime. Ibrahim was shocked by the miserable reality in Idlib, where displaced people are not able to secure their basic needs. This is in light of high unemployment rate and falling under the extreme poverty line. Additionally the living conditions are not better at all: problems associated with the collapse of the infrastructure, the deteriorating health situation, the absence of shelter, the high prices and the dangerous security conditions as the region is under the control of Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham.

Ibrahim holds the international community responsible for the situation in Syria, as a result of “tolerance of war crimes committed by the regime”. However, the Syrian activist Samer, 46, (the name he chose in his interview with MENA) believes that the Islamic factions and the slogans they raised led to international and Western aversion to support the Syrian revolution “despite the legitimacy of its demands.” The activist residing in the city of Sarmada recalls an incident still stuck in his mind, where “moderate” factions during the “Euphrates Shield” operation in 2016, expelled US forces from the town of “Al-Ra’i” (Joban Bay), in the province of Aleppo, after the US troops proposed to provide support for the operation to restore the city of “Al-Bab” from ISIS organization.

Ibrahim and Samer are part of a community of nearly 4 million people, most of whom are displaced. They live in the area under the control of Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed in 2017, of the merger of several extremist factions. It manages education, economy and public services in the region through its arm called the “Salvation Government”. However, it failed to alleviate the difficulties of daily life in a large area that includes parts of Idlib, the western countryside of Aleppo and Hama, and part of the northeastern countryside of Latakia.

HTS imposes its security and military authority on the local and displaced people through the General Security Agency. In fact he “Salvation Government” manages the commercial crossings, controls prices, and imposes royalties on traders, job owners, factories and projects, and is accused by the people of monopolizing basic commodities such as fuel, flour, sugar and oil for the benefit of traders working for the HTS.

Despite the remarkable attempts of HTS during the past months to improve its image and enhance its local legitimacy by showing a kind of openness, using a discourse hostile to extremism and terrorism, and promoting projects of governance and local administration, Samer believes that the transformation taking place in the approach and policy of HTS is only an attempt by its leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani, to convince the international community that it is a “moderate” group that can cooperate with the international level and involve it in the political solution in Syria after removing the HTS from the terrorism list.

Salma, who works in a society organization in the Syrian North, agrees with Samer. She points out that despite the HTS attempts to change its extremist approach, the purpose is purely informational.

According to Salma, al-Golani has recently visited villages inhabited by the Druze community in Jabal Al-Summaq, in addition to another visit to the villages of Al-Yacoubiyah and Al-Qunia, which are inhabited by very small numbers of Christians, and allowed them to commemorate Saint Anna’s memory on the last Sunday of August after a 10-year ban. However, Golani is still tolerating the violations and crimes against civilians by the Turkistan Party that consists of Jihadi members.

This also coincides with the continuous general restrictions on people. For instance, the HTS does not allow tourism on the banks of Al-Adawsiya River, located near the town of Badama in the western countryside of Jisr al-Shughur, under the pretext of avoiding mixing males with females. The same policy is followed by HTS even in primary schools, and here Salma asks: “How can both things be equal?!”

Welcome to Turkish Syria!

The north of Syria, which is not controlled by the Assad regime, is called the “liberated area.” However, since 2017, this region has turned into two regions or semi-states united by slogans and practices and divided by interests and loyalties. Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham and its executive arm the Salvation Government control the city of Idlib and its surroundings, while the “interim government” controls the countryside of Aleppo and the enclave called Nabaa al-Salam between the Hasaka and Raqqa, under full Turkish supervision.

Under the pretext of “protecting national security”, controlling borders and preventing the emergence of a Kurdish entity on its southern borders, Turkey – in agreement with Moscow – carried out three military operations in northern Syria; Operation “Euphrates Shield” in August 2016, Operation “Olive Branch” in February 2018, and Operation “Peace Spring” in October 2019. Today Turkey threatens to carry out the fourth operation to establish a deep buffer or safe zone 30 km in the north and northeast of Syria and expel the People’s Protection Forces, which lead the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey is constantly claiming that its direct control, or through its affiliates Syrian Islamic factions, over the north of Syria is a “stabilizing factor”, but in reality it is the opposite of what is being promoted, as chaos and lawlessness prevail on the scene in light of a struggle for influence between the moderate Islamist factions, although most of them joined the so-called “Syrian National Army”, they are still in a state of semi-permanent fighting. Therefore this merge did not result in the establishment of a balanced military body, and the Syrian National Army has remained lacking organization and institutionalization till today. This state of chaos is accompanied by daily violations against defenseless civilians, including the imposition of royalties, kidnappings, extortion, confiscation of land and crops, and suppression of freedom of religious belief, according to human rights reports and live testimonies. Wael, an Assyrian civil engineer who lived in the churches neighborhood in Ras al-Ain before it was invaded by the Turks and the factions, recounts that members of one of the armed factions took over his house and burned all religious icons and symbols in the neighborhood that was inhabited by a majority of Christians. “A faction called al-Amashat took over my house in Ras al-Ain. I had left the city since the start of the Turkish bombing and headed with my family to the town of Tal Tamr, and since then my house has turned into a military headquarters. We tried to communicate with the faction’s members to get some important things from the house, but they refused, and said your money and your possessions are permissible for us.. You are infidels,” Wael told MENA.

The young man adds indignantly: “I was born in this land, and my neighbors had different religions and nationalities, Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and Turkmens. There was no issues between us, but on the contrary, we were always as one family.” “There are many questions that I want to ask the factions’ leaders..Is it correct to call yourself a National Army when you do not recognize the rights of your countrymen? Is it correct to call yourself a National Army when you called your factions the names of Sultan Murad, Suleiman Shah, the Samarkand Brigade and others.. Where is the Syrian identity in these names?!”

We stopped at Wael’s talk about the Syrian identity and the deep meaning of this phrase. Pictures from the streets of Afrin, Tal Abyad, Jarablus, al-Rai and other cities and towns under the control of the Turks clearly reveal that the Turkish identity has begun to cover the Syrian identity. The Ottoman Nation Park, Recep Tayyip Erdogan Square, Bulant Al Bayrak School, and other names that enhance the Turkish presence in the cities, towns and villages of the northern countryside of Aleppo. The Turkish language is mandatory for students, and the Turkish lira is used in buying and selling.

A human rights activist from Afrin, who preferred not to be named, says: “It is clear that there is a soft policy and a systematic plan to Turkify the areas under Turkey, whether in areas where Arabs constitute the majority of the population, such as Al-Bab, Jarabulus and Azaz, or in Kurdish-majority areas such as Afrin. This Turkification is found in various aspects of life in the northern countryside of Aleppo, including cases of demographic change, the obliteration of cultural identity, the imposition of dealing with the Turkish lira, raising the Turkish flag over its squares and buildings of its public institutions, and changing school curricula and names of towns from Arabic to Turkish.

In his conversation with MENA he added that “Even the local councils are run by the Turkish states close to the Syrian border, such as the provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep, in the absence of any real role for the Syrian Interim Government… In short, there is an attempt by the Justice and Development Party and the Muslim Brotherhood to spread Turkish culture and prepare a generation that owes allegiance to Turkey, with the aim of ensuring Ankara’s interests in the event that a political agreement is reached in the future, in which Turkey might be expelled from Syria.”

While “Ibrahim” throws his bag over his shoulder, stamped with the UN logo, which he has found on the city’s streets, he mumbles: “Blessed are the strangers.. We are the strangers in our homeland” before starting again his way to the unknown. The unknown that awaits him and the Syrians everyday inside them, together with their various affiliations and loyalties. .

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