Idlib, civilians trapped between Assad's raids and jihadist violence

At least three people died after government forces bombed a fuel depot in the province. A woman shot in the head by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militiamen for smuggling fuel. From 2019 to 2021 Ankara repatriated 155,000 refugees by force or deception. 


Idlib (AsiaNews) - At least three civilians have been killed following the intense bombing by Damascus government forces against a fuel depot in the Idlib region in northwest Syria, the last enclave in the hands of rebel and jihadist groups. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO based in the United Kingdom with a dense network of correspondents in the area, the attack took place yesterday afternoon in a predominantly agricultural area and triggered a large fire. The target was a diesel filling station near the city of Dana owned by a fuel company close to the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Hts, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). 

The fuel trade and the control of oil stations are one of the factors triggering the violence in the area controlled by the jihadists, which does not spare even the civilian population including women and children. According to al-Monitor, a woman was shot in the head by HTS militiamen for trying to smuggle crude oil into Idlib. The execution-style shooting smacks of a warning to the population and has triggered protests and further clashes in the camps housing displaced people. 

The victim's name was Fatima Abdul Rahman al-Hamid, she was 28 years old, a widow and mother of four children with whom she lived in a reception centre: she was killed on 10 February near the checkpoint of Deir Ballut, in the north of Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham men opened fire while Fatima was transporting fuel from an area controlled by the Syrian National Army (SNS). The former al-Nusra jihadists, who garrison the Idlib area, have banned the transport of fuel from the Sna rebel areas, considering the trade as a "smuggling operation" to be punished by all means. However, trafficking is one of the few resources available to civilians to earn small amounts of money (less than one euro per night), against a much higher risk of being discovered and killed.  

Hts militiamen have strengthened their military control and hegemony over civilians in Idlib through the so-called "Syrian Salvation Government", which oversees transit points and the economy of the area, as well as having a monopoly on goods, from food to fuel. The jihadist group imposes prices and establishes royalties and taxes on entrepreneurs, making extensive use of violence, while the living conditions of the people are getting worse and worse and the unemployment rate has reached record levels. 

Following the death of the woman, the inhabitants of the centre of Atmeh attacked the checkpoints controlled by al-Nusra and set fire to tents and caravans belonging to the militiamen, who in response carried out several raids beating up civilians and refugees, arresting some of them. Among them was an activist who was documenting the violence, which resulted in the injury of a child. My family here in Atmeh," a refugee named Abu Ahmed told al-Monitor, "consists of five people. We are surviving on a small food basket we receive (from charities) every month, which is never enough. ... We collect firewood from the mountain for heating [...] we live only on God's mercy.

Children are also involved in smuggling and are treated no differently from adults. In a note circulated on Twitter on 5 January, the Hts leadership claimed to have 'arrested five minors' for illegally smuggling fuel. 

Finally, alarming news is also coming from across the border from Turkey, whose government is continuing its policy of rejecting and repatriating Syrian refugees, even those who have a temporary residence permit that would guarantee them protection. A report published recently by Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reveals that between 2019 and 2021, more than 155,000 Syrian refugees were forcibly or fraudulently repatriated, many of them by signing "voluntary return" documents in Turkish and ignoring their contents.