Victory by the Assad regime over the last bastion of the Syrian resistance is far from a foregone conclusion. Worse still for the Assad regime, it could unite the opposition into making a last stand. Over the last two years the Syrian revolution has taken a dramatic turn from what it was in the early days of the revolution.
It’s fair to say that the revolution started with civil unrest followed by mass arrests, widespread torture and killings by the Syrian regime against those who dared to speak up and protest. Then came the early stages of armed resistance that took shape from the announcements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), followed by many other armed groups and factionalisation. The early days of the conflict may be described as those of resilience in the face of a vicious onslaught by the regime, perseverance, and a refusal to “prostrate” to Bashar al Assad.
It was characterised by continuous battles and countless “martyrs”. The people had enough of Assad. Then came the liberation of the city of Idlib which was a landmark event in the history of the revolution as the opposition controlled much of the countryside and a single city: Raqqa. Other parts of the country were then liberated. The regime had by then already been besieging and starving places like Homs, Zabadani and Madaya to name a few.
The tactic of ‘siege and starvation’ began to work. Many recall the pictures of fighters and their families being transported in green buses from their homelands to the northern Syrian province of Idlib, the heartland of the revolution. The regime has used this tactic over the last couple of years.
Taking out one opposition or rebel-held area at a time until it becomes nearly certain that the final destination of all besieged fighters is the province of Idlib. Politics played a larger role than fighting during several stages of the revolution and revolutionaries realised there were forces bigger than their pump action shotguns and chants of war. The political battle was so dominant at certain times that many armed groups wouldn’t fight a single battle during that time.
Then came the Astana talks and “de-escalation zones”; a new concept to those on the ground in Syria. Many believed that this was some kind of conspiracy and not the end of the war, others begged to differ and were almost certain that the war was over and that “new borders had been drawn”. The Syrian people describe what happened next as “expected treachery”.
VOA reported last week, paraphrasing the United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura, as “Syria as a sovereign country has every right to reclaim its territory.” Those that believed everything was a conspiracy are now convinced that international peace talks and conferences were a conspiracy to cover up a larger plan. Some even said that Staffan de Mistura has now proven that he is not a neutral peacemaker but rather a complicit partner to the regime’s slaughter and torture of innocents.
For many here in northern Syria it does seem that the war is on the verge of restarting if the regime and its Russian backers start an offensive on the densely populated province. Idlib is currently home to just under 3 million people, over 1 million of them are refugees. Carpet bombing, that has become the modus operandi of the regime will spell disaster for a province that is more densely populated than at any time in its history.
Peace talks between opposition and rebel factions have now restarted after the announcement of a “renewed war on Idlib”. To the average Syrian, the battle for Idlib is not simply about ‘getting rid of terrorists’ as has been announced by the Russians, the Syrian regime, and even the UN. For many Syrians, this is not the case, rather it’s an offensive that aims to silence the revolution and its hope for freedom, once and for all.
The past month in northern Syria has been full of preparations by armed groups and civilians alike. Many civilians have voluntarily taken part in digging trenches with nothing but shovels and pickaxes, some have even been killed in the process due to the intense regime bombardment in areas in Hama, Sahl Al Ghab and Aleppo. In preparation for an offensive many people have been caught working for the Syrian regime, the locals call these people “frogs” or “dafadi” who are willing to work with Russia and the Assad regime.
Rebel sources I have spoken with tell me “we have certain information that those that have been arrested were to be relied heavily on by the regime when the offensive does start”. However not all hope is lost. The free people of Idlib will not allow international powers to decide their fate for them. Nor will they simply and idly wait as a brutal regime seeks to exert its long lost legitimacy with their blood.
A video statement was released by the National Front for Liberation or ‘Jabhat al Wataniya lil Tahrir’ dated 1 September stating that “those young men who at one stage gave up on the revolution are now back in the trenches.” It seems that the spirit of the early days of the revolution is now back, and in case the regime and Russia’s offensive does actually start, we will likely see a new stage in the Syrian revolution similar to the one we knew in the early days.