‘We do not hate our country, but we will be killed if we stay,’ a Syrian demonstrator near the Turkish border told me earlier this month.
The protest was triggered by the intensified, regime-led military campaign on Syria’s last remaining opposition-held region in northwestern Syria. The offensive has been systematically targeting residential areas and civilian facilities, leaving more than 3 million people with no safe ground inside the country.
Civilians in greater Idlib have launched a campaign asking people to march towards the Turkish border to cross to Europe. This action threatens Western countries, and Turkey, with a major influx of refugees if they do not live up to their responsibilities to stop the mass slaughter of civilians in Syria.
Since late April, Russian and Syrian forces have stepped up air raids and shelling on greater Idlib, which includes the majority of Idlib province and parts of rural Aleppo. But the situation has deteriorated dramatically in the past two months.
Locals and observers have said that the Assad regime and Russia have been using terrorists holed up inside Idlib as a pretext to wrest control of two major highways in that region. To that end, the regime is depending on a combination of artillery shelling, cluster munitions and air strikes, including the use of barrel bombs.
In addition to attacking the frontlines, the regime bombardment has focused on residential areas across the opposition-held region. According to the UN, about 500,000 people had fled their homes between 1 December 2019 and 1 February 2020. Another 400,000 people were displaced between April and August 2019.
The UN has also documented the deaths of 290 civilians in the past two months, but it expects the actual number to be much higher.
Displacement has become a fact of life for the majority of people living in this densely populated, opposition-held region; Idlib province is home to more than one million people displaced from other areas of the country.
The problem facing these displaced people is that now, more than ever, there is no safe ground for them to flee to. According to local humanitarian workers, people are in constant movement from one area to another, because no area is safe enough.
In addition, there are no camps equipped to receive big numbers of people, as the existing ones are overcrowded. The fighting has further strained the already-struggling humanitarian supply lines into Idlib.
Various humanitarian groups have all but ceased operations in contested areas, fearing for the safety of their workers and supply lines. As a result, thousands of civilians are sleeping in olive groves without access to shelter, water or medical facilities, according to various local humanitarian groups.
Yet, despite the scale of this humanitarian catastrophe, the international community has not done much to pressure Russia or the regime to stop their military campaign and the systematic targeting of civilians. Instead, civilians feel that Western countries are more concerned about keeping them from fleeing Syria, despite the enormous risks facing them inside their country.
Consequently, activists and civilians in greater Idlib called for the march to the Turkish border on 2 February – part of a wider campaign titled ‘break the border’ to highlight the suffering of civilians and warn of the consequences if the killing of civilians does not stop.
The general feeling among people involved in the campaign is that, if the West only cares about keeping them in Syria, it is necessary to speak on those terms. This is why ‘from Idlib to Berlin’ became the main slogan for the march. The goal is not to illegally cross into Turkey in large numbers, but to highlight the need for protection and a safe haven.
Organizers hope that the campaign will trigger a response from the international community and member states to live up to their responsibilities and protect civilians in Syria. ‘We hope that the attacks will stop, even if [the motivation is] to keep us locked up in a violent nightmare with no end in sight,’ said Waleed al-Ahmed, a humanitarian worker in Idlib.
Campaign organisers point out that people are becoming more desperate, with many believing that fleeing the country is their only choice if the killing does not stop.
‘When you lose everything, and most importantly hope, the only option you have left is to gamble with everything – including your life and the lives of your loved ones – in order to either get a better, safer, more dignified life, or die trying,’ demonstrator Ahmed Khalid Hassoun told the author.