He says that the three million people of Idlib fear a return of government forces, but are almost equally hostile to the armed opposition groups now ruling Idlib because they have spread violence and chaos. He sees Turkey and Russia, who this week started implementing their ceasefire agreement to prevent a government offensive into the province, as acting solely in their own interests.
Abu Omar, in an exclusive interview with The Independent from Idlib city via Whatsapp, describes the mood as war weary and disillusioned. The province south west of Aleppo was once a stronghold of the armed opposition after the original uprising of 2011. Hostility towards the government in Damascus is still intense, but so is antipathy towards its opponents. “At the beginning you could see the youth rushing to fight [against government forces],” says Abu Omar. “But now nobody cares about fighting and religious belief can no longer motivate people to fight for those in control here [the armed opposition].”
Abu Omar, who does not want his real name published because of fear of retribution, was speaking as Russia and Turkey were implementing the terms of agreement reached by president Vladimir Putin and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Sochi in September. The terms of the deal show the extent to which Turkey and Russia are now the dominant powers in northwest Syria. They have established a demilitarised zone 15-20 kilometres wide to separate opposition and Syrian government forces which is being monitored by Turkish and Russian patrols. Opposition heavy weapons such as tanks, rocket systems and mortars have been withdrawn, along with 1,000 fighters.
Other provisions of the agreement include the withdrawal of the most militarily effective opposition group, the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, by 15 October as well as the opening of the M4 and M5 highways linking the government-held cities of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.
The city’s residents are sceptical about the motives of local and foreign players in Idlib, but they are grateful that a new round of the fighting has been averted for the moment. They see themselves as facing a choice of evils. Abu Ahmad Bakour, 47, who tries to eke out a living as a day labourer in Idlib, says: “We don’t understand what is happening in our region, but we are all happy that there is no fighting and no bombardment.”
He dislikes the continuing rule by opposition militias, said to number some 90,000 fighters, as much as the prospect of a return of Syrian government authority. “If we people are asked whom we would prefer to rule us, then we would say the Turkish rather than the Syrian government,” he says. Mr Bakour is fearful of the Iranian militias on the government side whom, he is convinced, would kill Sunni Arabs like himself and “put us in mass graves” if they ever recaptured Idlib.
He is trenchant in his criticism of the many opposition groups that have held Idlib city since 2015 and the rest of the province for even longer. “We are tired of war and of the militant groups that use the name of Islam to control us,” he says. “They are just stealing money and strangling the people by what they do.”
Abu Omar agrees with Mr Bakour’s rage against both the Syrian government and the armed opposition, though he does not go along with his preference for Turkish rule. He says that less than 10 per cent of people in Idlib are pro-Turkish and that the rest “realise that Turkey is playing for the region for its own benefit”.
People in Idlib are not starving, but they are very poor, particularly in the cities and towns where there is little work. In Idlib city, there are many, like Mr Bakour, who sit in the squares and roundabouts hoping to be hired as day labourers, which will earn them the equivalent of about $2 for a day’s work. Others wait beside the road selling fuel, much of which comes from the Kurdish-held oilfields in eastern Syria. Nobody is building anything so there are no construction jobs, but some skilled workers and professionals, such as doctors, nurses, electricians and car repairmen, earn good money providing essential services. The best jobs are with aid organisations that pay between $200 and $700 a month in dollars.
Idlib shares a border with Turkey, but it is not isolated from the rest of Syria despite many government checkpoints in and out of the province. Sieges in the wars in Syria and Iraq seldom amount to a complete blockade of people and good entering or leaving. This is because checkpoints act more like privatised customs posts. Government and opposition pay their forces too little to live on so their men depend bribes. It will be a blow to the armed opposition if they lose the revenues from their control of the M4 and M5 highways under the Turkish-Russian agreement.
“Many agricultural goods, especially olives, tomatoes and potatoes, are exported to regime areas and industrial goods, including canned goods, pharmaceuticals, clothes and shoes come back,” Abu Omar says. He says that Syrian goods and produce are mostly cheaper than that those coming from Turkey. This flourishing two-way trade means that when fighting has closed the roads in and out of Idlib, prices in its markets have gone down rather than up because output can no longer be exported to the rest of Syria. When trade is free flowing, tomatoes sell in Idlib for the equivalent of 70 US cents a kilogram, but, when the checkpoints are closed, the price drops to 30 cents. Olive oil likewise costs $6 a litre normally, but when there is fighting the price is half that in Idlib.
The Syrian war has largely been a war of sieges and blockades of which Idlib is the last. All sides have found it profitable to allow trade with their worst enemies, even when Isis controlled the east of the country. This spring the main M4 east-west highway was crowded with road tankers bringing crude from the Kurdish-held oilfields in the north east to the government refinery at Homs.
The Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement in Idlib is holding, though the Syrian government speaks of it as a temporary arrangement. But it is Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan who decide what will happen in Idlib and neither of them wants the deal to collapse. Almost unnoticed, the remnants of the armed opposition, once promoted by the West and regional powers as the future rulers of Syria, is losing any autonomy it still retained and, if it has a future, it will be as auxiliaries to the Turkish army. Mr Assad has not yet entirely won the war, but the opposition have certainly lost it.
Meanwhile, people in Idlib distrust all sides and with good reason, but, as Abu Omar says, they “are happy with any solution that stops them again becoming the victims of displacement, destruction and war”.