Thousands rally in Idlib as Assad offensive looms
In the latest of ongoing weekly demonstrations in Syria's besieged Idlib province, thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers Sept. 14, calling on the world to act to prevent the impending massacre there. One of the biggest demonstrations was held in the city of Maarat al-Nouman in central Idlib, where some 25,000 people, including residents from outlying villages and towns, gathered for the march called by the civil resistance. "There will be no solution in Syria without Assad's fall," read one prominent banner. Russian-led air-strikes have already opened on Idlib ahead of the anticipated offensive by the Assad regime and its allied forces to take the province, now the last significant area of Syria still controlled by the opposition. Air-strikes last week reportedly destroyed a hospital run by the White Helmets in the town of Hass. The UN has provided Russia with the GPS coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in Idlib, in the hope that the move will help protect them from being attacked. But Russia and Assad have been repeatedly accused of intentionally bombing hospitals over the course of the Syrian war.
Russian portrayals, unfortunately widely accepted in the West, depict Idlib as a "cradle of terrorism," making the secular civil resistance forces in the province invisible. Over the past years, Maarat al-Nouman has witnessed repeated protests against Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadist faction formerly known as the Nusra Front, which controls areas of Idlib province. In 2016, residents managed to expel all HTS fighters from the city following clashes with the 13th Division, a local affiliate of the Free Syrian Army.
At the Friday mobilization in Idlib city, capital of the province, there were two parallel demonstrations—one by the civil resistance in Martyrs' Square, where the black-white-green Free Syria flag of the revolution was waved; one at Clock Square by HTS, where the black Tawhid flag was seen.
At last Friday's protests in Idlib city, on Sept. 7, HTS fired live ammunition to break up the demonstration called by the civil resistance. The crowd quickly turned on the militants calling them shabiha (a reference to Assad's collaborationist militia) and chanting "Jolani get out" (a reference to the group's leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani). Towns across Idlib province have seen repeated uprisings against HTS and associated jihadist forces.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on parties to the conflict in Syria to protect the 3 million civilians trapped in Idlib, saying it "must not be transformed into a bloodbath." (Al Jazeera, AP, Reuters, BellingCat, Freedom)