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In a Syrian rebel bastion, millions are trapped in murky, violent limbo

A man took shelter in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, on March 23, 2021.
A man took shelter in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, on March 23, 2021.IVOR PRICKETT/NYT

IDLIB, Syria — Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their towns, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones are 150 families squatting in a soccer stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in rickety tents under the stands or in the rocky courtyard.

Work is scarce and terror grips them whenever jets buzz overhead: New airstrikes could come at any time. But the fear of government retribution keeps them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last bastions under rebel control, eating up farmland, stretching along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families squat in damaged units with no windows.

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“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before they go live under the regime" of President Bashar Assad, said Okba al-Rahoum, manager of the camp in the soccer stadium.

On a rare visit to Idlib province, examples abounded of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often-violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could attack at any moment, they struggle to secure basic needs in a territory controlled by a militant group formerly linked to al-Qaida.

In the decade since Syria’s war began, Assad's forces crushed communities that revolted against him, and millions of people fled to new lives of uncertainty — in neighboring countries, Europe and pockets of Syria outside of Assad’s grip, including the rebel-held northwest.

The Syrian leader has made it clear that these people don’t fit into his conception of victory, and few are likely to return as long as he remains in power, making the fate of the displaced one of the thorniest pieces of the war’s unfinished business.

“The question is: What is the future for these people?” said Mark Cutts, United Nations deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. “They can’t continue living forever in muddy fields under olive trees by the side of the road.”

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Throughout the war, the rebel-held northwest became the destination of last resort for Syrians with nowhere else to go. The government bused them here after conquering their towns. They drove in with trucks piled high with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possession besides the clothes they wore.

Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.

About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last of two strips of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled from other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.

After fighting consumed his hometown, Akram Saeed, a former police officer, fled to the Syrian village of Qah, near the Turkish border, in 2014 and settled on a patch of land overlooking olive groves in a valley below. He has since watched waves of his countrymen pour into that valley, where the olive trees gave way to a densely packed tent camp.

“In the last year, all of Syria ended up here,” Saeed said. “Only God knows what will come in the future.”

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Humanitarian organizations working to hold back hunger and infectious diseases, including COVID-19, have struggled to get enough aid into the area. And that effort could become more difficult if Russia, Assad’s closest international ally, blocks a U.N. resolution up for renewal this summer to keep one border crossing with the northwest open for international aid.

Further complicating the international quandary over aiding Idlib is the dominant role of the militant rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS.

The group evolved from the Nusra Front, a jihadi organization that declared its allegiance to al-Qaida early in the war and distinguished itself by its copious use of suicide bombers against government and civilian targets.

Turkey, the United States and the United Nations consider HTS a terrorist organization, even though its leaders publicly distanced themselves from al-Qaida in 2016 and have since played down their jihadi roots. Those efforts were clear around Idlib, where flags, insignia and graffiti announcing the group’s presence were absent, even though residents often referred to it cautiously as “the group that controls the area.”

Unlike the Islamic State, the terrorist group that fought both rebels and the government to control an expanse of territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border, HTS is not pushing for the immediate creation of an Islamic state and does not field morality police officers to enforce strict social codes.

During a tour of the group’s front-line positions, a military spokesman who went by the nom de guerre Abu Khalid al-Shami took reporters down a dirt staircase hidden in a bunker to a long, underground tunnel leading to a network of trenches and firing positions manned by fighters.

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“The regime is that way, this way are the Russians, and the Iranian militias are over there,” he said, pointing across green fields to where the group’s foes were dug in.

Asked how the group differed from its predecessor, the al-Qaida franchise, he cast it as part of the wider rebel movement seeking to topple Assad.

To administer the area, HTS helped establish the Syrian Salvation Government, which has more than 5,000 employees and 10 ministries, including justice, education and agriculture, administration head Ali Keda said in an interview.

It is not internationally recognized and struggles to meet the area’s overwhelming needs.

Critics dismiss the administration as a civilian facade that allows a banned group to interact with foreign organizations; they accuse it and HTS of detaining critics and shutting down activities seen in conflict with its strict Islamic views.

Last month, Rania Kisar, the Syrian American director of SHINE, an education organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to refuse polygamous marriages, which are permitted under Islamic law.

The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Kisar said.

A spokesman for the administration, Melhem al-Ahmad, confirmed it had closed the office “until further notice” after deeming Kisar’s words “an insult to public sentiment and morals.”

A spokesman for HTS said aid and media organizations were free to work inside “a revolutionary framework” that respects norms and does not overstep what is permitted.

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An advance by government forces last year increased the pressure on Idlib’s already strained services.

At an Idlib city maternity hospital, Dr. Ikram Haboush recalled delivering three or four babies per day before the war. Now, because so many doctors have fled and there are so few facilities, she often oversees 15 deliveries per day.

The hospital is crowded and lacks the means to handle difficult cases.

“Sometime we have babies born prematurely, but we have no place to put them and by the time we can transfer them to Turkey, the child is dead,” she said.

Since last year, a cease-fire between Russia and Turkey has stopped outright combat in Idlib, but on one day last month there were three attacks. A shell hit a refugee camp; an airstrike ignited a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells struck a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone for a vaccination, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

While the area’s displaced struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.

In Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and to forget their woes with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed-animal claw machines.

The basement storeroom doubles as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so that it doesn’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.

The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that shut down when the war began, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.

He opened another restaurant but left it behind when the government seized the area last year and he fled to Idlib.

Like all of Idlib’s displaced, he longed to take his family home, but he was glad to work in a place that spread a little joy in the meantime.

“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”