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'Anything to stop the destruction': Syrians on Turkey's Idlib incursion

After an escalation of Russian and Syrian air strikes, many in the last rebel stronghold welcome Ankara campaign - but not all
A Syrian boy on the outskirts of Idlib runs while carrying bread after a government air strike in his town in January 2017 (AFP)

After nearly six years of instability and war, many Syrians living inside Idlib have cautiously welcomed Turkey's latest intervention in their country - even if it is borne of an alliance with some of their worst enemies.

Late last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria which took control of the northern Syrian province in late July.

Anything that will stop the destruction and killing

- Fatima, Idlib resident

One of the country's last rebel strongholds, Idlib has over the past year seen the arrival of thousands of displaced Syrians, shipped to the province in the now famous green buses, after years under brutal sieges. 

Last month, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib during the sixth round of talks in Astana.

But in recent weeks, in what the Red Cross described as some of "the most intense violence since the battle for East Aleppo", Russia and the Syrian government have stepped up their bombing campaigns, hitting hospitals and schools and killing at least 150 civilians in over a week. 

Children stand on Turkish armoured vehicles in Hatay, before they enter Idlib (Reuters)

So one might expect Syrians in Idlib to see Turkey's campaign - which is an attack on a Syrian rebel group and part of an alliance with the very countries that have kept Bashar al-Assad in power - as a betrayal.

But for residents like 20-year-old Fatima, ending the war, whatever it takes, is now their priority.

"I am for anything that will stop the destruction and killing of people after so many years of war," said Fatima, who lives and works in the Idlib countryside where many of the recent bombs have dropped. 

Last year, Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield, its bid to remove the Islamic State group from its border and to take control of the territory from the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces, has brought relative peace and stability to other areas of northern Syria. Fatima and others said they hope the same can be replicated further west in Idlib.

"Turkey intervening may be the best solution to Syria's situation because Russia and Assad will stop at nothing to destroy the whole of Syria."

Batool Barakat, 19, who is studying English in the northern province's countryside, said she hoped the latest developments "will be good for Syria...and relieve the suffering of our people".

"The top priority for many including myself is for the safety of my city and the hope that an agreement will be reached that will make all sides happy."

'Pawns on a chess board'

Other residents who spoke with Middle East Eye were less supportive, if just as war-weary. One major concern: what role will Russia have in Turkey's campaign?

When Erdogan announced the start of the campaign on Saturday, he noted that Russia will be providing aerial support to the Turkish army in Idlib. 

I will be happy if all foreign powers just left my country and stop treating it like a chess board

- Sara Khateb, student in Idlib

"Many people are questioning how the same planes which has caused so much destruction over the years can now be used for our peace and security," said Mohammed Radwan, who is a volunteer officer for the western NGO Mercy Corps. He was recently displaced from eastern Aleppo after living under a brutal siege for more than a year. 

"The people welcome the entry of the Turks but without the intervention of the Russians who have partnered with Bashar in destroying our homes." 

For Wissam Zarqa, an activist and English teacher who arrived in Idlib after he was displaced in eastern Aleppo, the very notion of Turkish troops working with the Russian military seem like a "far-fetched idea".

Last August, residents of Daraya are evacuated after a four-year Syrian army siege, headed for Idlib (AFP)
"The very thought of Russia fighting alongside Turkey is very strange and just doesn't seem possible," he said. "Their mere presence in liberated areas will stoke fury after enduring years of their bombs."

Sara Khateb, a student, said: "I am not happy about this latest development because I know that Syria and especially Idlib is a cake and everyone wants their share.

"I will be happy if all foreign powers just left my country and stop treating it like a chess board, but I do not know if this going to happen anytime soon."

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