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For Syrians in Idlib, the road to Damascus does not pass through Libya

Civilians and activists in the rebel-held province say the decision to send Turkey-backed rebels to fight against Haftar is a mistake
Children walk along a mudpath at a camp for displaced Syrians at Khirbet al-Joz in the northwestern Idlib province near the border with Turkey on 12 December (AFP)

Turkey's decision to transfer Syrian rebels to Libya has triggered discontent in Idlib - as the Syrian government and its Russian allies pound the country's last remaining rebel stronghold.

Sources told Middle East Eye on Friday that Syrian fighters from the Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Faylaq al-Sham were among the armed groups to be sent to Libya.

The opposition Syrian Interim Government has denied the reports, and Yasser al-Hamoud, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, told MEE: "The official statement confirming the denial of the matter represents our official position."

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The Syrian Revolutionaries Association, a non-governmental organisation that includes Syrian activists inside and outside Syria, issued a statement on Friday saying it "deplored" any Syrian involvement in the Libyan conflict.

"This deviation is tantamount to mercenary work and a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and of the Syrian revolution," the statement read.

Idlib under fire

"This statement represents all free Syrians who adhere to their values and principles," Hanin al-Sayyid, a member of the Syrian Revolutionaries Association displaced from southern Idlib, told MEE.

"Syrians have taken up arms to obtain their right to liberty, not for the sake of exploiting their suffering and turning them into mercenaries fighting to achieve the interests of foreign countries," she added.

But for Ghayath Abu Ahmad, an activist displaced from the city of Daraya currently living in the northern Idlib province, Syrians and Libyans share the same cause.

"The issue is the same, so there is no difference between helping Libyan rebels or if Libyans helped Syrian rebels," Abu Ahmad told MEE. "But the disaster is that this coincides with violent attacks by the Moscow-backed Damascus forces on Idlib."

The Russian-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recently stepped up their military operations in southern Idlib, displacing some 235,000 civilians in the process according to the United Nations.

Rebel fortifications have collapsed under the pressure, with several strategic locations falling into government hands, including the town of Maarat al-Numan, which oversees the highway connecting the cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

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For Abu Ahmad, "in these difficult times, I think we need the help of Libyan rebels instead of helping them".

Suhaib Mekhal, an activist residing in the city of Idlib, concurred: "Damascus has taken control of cities that for eight years had been under the control of the rebels. Idlib is in dire need of fighters instead of Libya.

"This [rebel Syrian] National Army consists of the sons of the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia, which are witnessing violent battles - why don't they come to Idlib to reclaim their land?"

Bitter disappointment

For those remaining in Idlib, the news came as a shock.

"Civilians' disappointment is huge," Mekhal told MEE with despair in his voice. "They had hoped Ankara-backed fighters would support Idlib.

"There is no longer any real benefit to these fighters, whether they go to Libya or remain in Syria," he added.

'Civilians ... had hoped Ankara-backed fighters would support Idlib'

- Suhaib Mekhal, activist in Idlib

A civilian residing in northern Idlib, who requested anonymity, said that the population of Idlib was dissatisfied with the Syrian National Army fighters.

"There are fighters already preparing to go to Libya, while others are looking for a way to go there in exchange for a high salary," the source claimed.

Anti-Assad activist Fidaa al-Saleh, who lives north of Aleppo, said he doubted the validity of the reports due to the absence of any official sources confirming the news.

"If there are Syrian fighters who have gone to Libya, they are mercenaries in every sense of the word, because they are fighting to get money while steering away from their cause," Saleh said.

However, video footage spread online over the weekend of fighters claiming to be from the Syrian opposition contingent called al-Mutasim, who claimed they had gained control of a camp previously held by Haftar's forces 

MEE could not independently verify the veracity of the footage - while the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya denied on Sunday reports that Syrian fighters had already been deployed by Turkey.

For Ahed al-Hag, a former director of the Women's Training and Qualification Centre in Idlib, one thing is clear: "The road to freedom and to Damascus does not pass through Libya.

"This land, watered with the blood of innocents, will surely give birth to other heroes who will reclaim it from the forces of Damascus," she told MEE.

"God will protect us in Idlib."