Civilians starving in Idlib, victims of a power struggle between anti-Assad groups
by Dario Salvi

In refugee camps people struggle to meet their daily needs, lacking basic goods starting with food. International groups too are struggling to help two million people. The armed groups that control the area have targeted journalists and activists. Football (soccer) has become a metaphor for the ongoing power struggle.

Milan (AsiaNews) – In the refugee camps of Syria’s north-western province of Idlib, the last stronghold still in the hands of opposition and jihadi groups, fasting during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer, is a wholly different experience.

The economic crisis that affects the entire country and Western sanctions have made life even harsher, as evinced by a chronic lack of food. Every day, locals struggle to find the basics to feed their families because of high prices and shortages in essential goods.

In his Urbi et Orbi message after Mass on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis referred to the blood dripping from the “wounds”, which are drowning the desire for "peace and reconciliation" of the peoples of Lebanon, Syria, and Syria.

Displaced by more than a decade of war that has crossed Syria's borders and turned into a bloody proxy war between world powers, displaced people in the refugee camps in Idlib struggle every day to buy food and basic supplies.

The Turkish agency Anadolu cites Ahmad Abu Omar, who fled Hama four years ago and now lives in a camp near Qafar Arouq. “We are unable to buy even a kilo of potatoes, let alone sunflower oil,” he said. “We cook without oil. We go to the doctor but we cannot afford medicine from the pharmacy.”

A displaced woman, Om Ahmad, says that the lack of food is driving people to collect herbs in the mountains, and boil them because there is nothing else to eat in the tents.

Such hardships are making it harder for residents of refugee camps to experience Ramadan, especially when they break the daily fast for a convivial moment after sunset.

For Mahir Muhammad it does not feal like Ramadan. "I cannot buy anything that can make my children happy,” he said.

Despite the work and efforts of charities and groups to provide hot meals and raise funds, the needs of two million displaced people cannot be met.

The collapse of the Turkish lira has worsened the crisis in Idlib while the war between Russia and Ukraine is affecting imports from Turkey, such as wheat.

The area is on the verge of collapse, despite attempts by radical groups to cover up the situation as much as possible, with threats and violence against people, including activists and journalists.

Horrors and censorship

In recent months, scores of journalists and media people have fled northwestern Syria for the shores of Europe, some after paying large sums of money, in order to escape persecution by opposition groups and Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham (HTS, ex al-Qaeda).

Al-Monitor cites Suhail Zubair (not his real name) who fled from al-Bab, on the outskirts of Aleppo, because of threats from pro-Turkish opposition groups following a report into the violence in the prisons of al-Rai and Afrin, where thousands of detainees are locked up.

Local “factions prevent international human rights organizations from entering the women’s cells or communicating with them, as they fear being held accountable and tried in international courts if the women reveal to these organizations the abusive practices and grave violations,” he explained.

In addition to men, women and minors are also affected by the violence, including 10-year-old children. One of Zubair's colleagues was assassinated in December 2020 for reporting about the area.

Alaa Haitham, not her real name, once worked in the province before fleeing with her family after she received threats from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The area, she noted, is controlled by “extremist jihadists and former fighters of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra who threaten journalistic work, especially work that criticizes their policies”.

“I received death threats because I was preparing a documentary film about the difficulties female journalists face ... as well as the imprisonment, death threats and rape at the hands of HTS,” she added.

Dozens of journalists and activists have been locked up in prisons in opposition-controlled areas, while others have been abducted and killed. At least 17 have fled in the last three months because of the danger. 

According to a May 2021 report by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, a partner of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the war has claimed the lives of more than 700 journalists between 2011 and 2021, while Syria ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom last year.

The football challenge

Tensions are rising in Idlib as groups only united by their opposition to the Assad regime vie for power.

Recently, the decision by the commander of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s military wing, Abu Hassan al-Hamwi, to attend the final game of a football (soccer) league has sparked controversy.

Jihadi groups accuse the group of wasting time and “the blood of the mujahedeen” over football and sport in general, which are distracting them from their tasks and goals.

As a result, the HTS’s military wing has been dubbed the soccer wing because of its passion for football.

“There are almost daily deaths and injuries,” said Abu Mohammed al-Halabi, but “HTS is holding a soccer league. When the villages and towns of Jabal al-Zawiya (near Idlib) were being bombarded with artillery by the regime forces, Hamwi was watching a soccer game.”

However, “The extremist groups that criticize HTS’ military wing for organizing a soccer league for its fighters are hateful groups” because sports “strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and love between the fighters and raise their physical fitness,” a source close to HTS was quoted as saying.

Experts and observers are carefully monitoring the sport controversy because it is symptomatic of a power struggle between more or less radical groups, ranging from the Islamic State to al-Qaeda.

“HTS is now a powerful authority in Idlib and has its own project that the Salvation Government (Assad’s regime)) is working to establish,” said Orabi Abdel-Hay Orabi, a Syrian journalist specialising in Islamic and jihadi groups in Turkey.

“Sports activities and other cultural and religious activities that are in line with the local popular mood in Idlib serve its project,” he explained.

“HTS is using such activities to get closer to the people and show that it belongs to this area and its fighters belong to this culture. It no longer is the same jihadi organization that had been classified as a terrorist group.”