A ceasefire is in place in Idlib province, but civilians and rebels in northwest Syria are skeptical it will last.
On Saturday, a Russia-brokered truce came into force, bringing a respite from four months of airstrikes on the last remaining bastion for the opposition fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The news came as a relief to Mousa al-Ramah, a 36-year-old soldier with the opposition Victory Army, which fights under the banner of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.
The pause in the fighting has allowed his unit to dig trenches and build fortifications near Kafr Zita, Khan Sheikhoun and elsewhere in Idlib’s southern countryside.
Al-Ramah, who is currently living with his six young children in the cellar of a stranger’s house in Atma, a town on the border with Turkey, fears he will soon be called back to the front lines.
“There is no such thing as a trustworthy pact with this rogue regime,” said al-Ramah.
Al-Ramah says he and his fellow fighters have good reason to doubt the ceasefire will hold. It is the second such attempt in a month to stave off the fighting in the province.
A similar ceasefire announced August 1 truce fell apart within days, and pro-government forces captured the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun and nearby villages soon after.
Idlib province was supposed to be protected by a September 2018 de-escalation agreement between Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Assad’s main ally Russia. Under the deal, Turkey was to ensure jihadist groups and heavy weaponry withdrew from a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib.
Assad has used the failure of the opposition to fully comply as a pretext for a military offensive. Since late April, pro-government forces have targeted towns and villages across Idlib, as well as parts of north Hama and western Aleppo provinces.
Shortly before the ceasefire took effect Saturday, activists say Russian warplanes struck a hospital in western Aleppo’s countryside, rendering it out of service.
The U.N. says 43 health facilities have been impacted by the offensive in Idlib province, as well as 87 education facilities. According to aid organization Save The Children, the remaining schools can accommodate fewer than half of the region’s estimated 650,000 school-aged children.
Both Moscow and Damascus deny hitting civilian areas. They say they are targeting the various “terrorist groups” operating in Idlib, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the area.
As of Wednesday, the airstrikes had halted, but there is still daily artillery and rocket fire around the northwestern enclave, according to Major Youssef Hamoud, a spokesperson for the Turkey-backed National Army.
“A criminal regime and its Russian backers can never be trusted,” Hamoud told The Defense Post. “Russia seeks to empty the entire region of its population.”
The same day the latest ceasefire took effect, the U.S.-led coalition struck what it said was a jihadist training facility near Aleppo province. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by the Tass news agency that the U.S. attack jeopardized the ceasefire.
As hundreds of thousands of civilians flee north toward the closed border with Turkey, the U.N. has warned of a humanitarian crisis unlike anything seen this century.
During a news conference Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned that Idlib is at risk of going the way of Aleppo, which came under regime control in 2017 after years of bloodshed.
“The choice of what comes next is thus primarily in Russia’s hands,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
To avoid a bloodbath in the region, Russia needs to find an alternative to military victory, she said.
“Any ceasefire will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any ceasefire that is to prove sustainable needs to involve HTS somehow,” Khalifa said.
During the past eight years of war, Syrians have watched as series of ceasefires, humanitarian pauses and peace talks failed to stop the bloodshed in other cities. This latest reprieve from the fighting is no different, says Idlib resident Erwa al-Abdullah.
Al-Abdullah, 30, is living in a tent with his family in Deir Hassan in northern Idlib. He’s been uprooted twice now – first from Hama countryside in 2015 and now from Jabala in southern Idlib.
As with previous truces, al-Abdullah says he’s cautiously optimistic but wishes there could be monitoring from the U.S. or U.N.
“The regime always breaches the ceasefires,” said al-Abdullah. “Russia lies. Assad lies. We can trust no one.”