Idlib residents speak out on demilitarised zone

The situation in Idlib has taken a new turn following news that Russia and Turkey have agreed to a demilitarised zone (DMZ) of around 15-20 km that will effectively separate Syrian government forces from opposition fighters in the province. Russia has now said the Assad regime will hold off on its planned Idlib offensive, which threatened the lives of 3 million people, mostly civilians.

“Syria, Russia and Iran have shown time and time again that agreements made around diplomatic tables carry little weight in the skies above civilian homes, schools and hospitals,” says Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign. “Russia had agreed on a ceasefire for Eastern Ghouta and yet the town was bombed into ruins with little thought to past promises.

“It’s not clear exactly what Turkey and Russia have agreed to and why. We fear that the deal could eventually be used as justification for a violent bombardment if and when those the regime calls ‘terrorists’ fail to leave the demilitarised zone.”

In Idlib, residents have cautiously welcomed the news of the DMZ, though there is uncertainty about what it means, what its purpose is, and whether it will also act as a no-fly zone.

“Given the chaos and deterioration among the opposition and in the absence of them having any clear goals, I think this agreement is more than good,” says Amer Zaidan, an activist from Eastern Ghouta now based in Idlib. “But the question is, who will guarantee our permanent safety and stop the regime from bombing civilians in Idlib? Is Turkey able to ensure safety and security for the whole region?”

Bayan Rehan, a women’s rights activist from Ghouta now living in Idlib, echoes Amer’s support for the DMZ but questions Turkey’s motives. “The current talk among the civilians here is that the DMZ is the beginning of a political agreement between Turkey and Russia to spare Idlib from an assault.

“But civilians in Idlib say that Turkey might annexe northwestern Syria and take it as part of its territory. They say that’s preferable to being controlled by the regime but really, it’s a case of choosing between bad and worse—either accepting life under the regime and Russia’s control or under Turkey’s control. Of course people who witnessed the regime’s crimes, massacres and arrests would rather live under Turkey. But, as activists, we don’t want to be under anyone’s control—we want our country to be united for all Syrians and we want to bring down the Assad regime.”

“I hope this agreement will truly guarantee the safety of civilians in the northwest and save them from more killing and displacement,” says Mohamad Barakat an activist and manager of a local cultural centre in Urem al Kubra, near Idlib. “I also hope this demilitarised zone is real because we learned long ago not to trust Russia and the Assad regime. Civilians need more guarantees that the regime won’t attack them using the same claim again and again that it’s fighting terrorists.”

Khaled Abo Alhuda, a media activist from Ghouta now based in Idlib is also hopeful about the demilitarised zone. “I think it has several positives, the main one being that we have avoided the bloodshed seen in Ghouta, Daraa and southern Damascus.”

“We thank God that Turkey’s interests were compatible with the interests of ours, the supporters of the Syrian revolution. It had become clear that the opposition would not have been able to fight the regime and Russia—the experiences of Daraa and Ghouta are proof of that.”

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