Dahaam Shabib walked around his house one last time. He glanced at his vegetable patch, with the shoots of mint, spring onion and garlic peeking out of the brown earth. He looked at the walls; it had cost him 15 years of savings and his wife’s jewelry to afford the two-story home in the village of Tal Mardikh, where he had lived for a decade.
But this week, it was time to leave.
For days, the thumps of artillery had been coming ever closer, the roar of warplanes more frequent; harbingers of a no-holds-barred offensive launched by the Syrian government and its Russian allies in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, the rebels’ last major bulwark against forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
By Sunday, government troops had reached to within 10 miles of Tal Mardikh. The next day, the civilian laborer and 11 relatives sardined themselves into his road-worn four-door Hyundai. They headed north toward the Turkish border, joining a chaotic mass exodus — more than 180,000 people strong, aid groups estimate — of Syrians escaping the intensifying barrage.
“Farewell my home. Farewell to my life’s hard work,” Shabib said in a video he posted to social media on Sunday, minutes before he drove away. He intoned a prayer that he would return, his voice cracking before he broke down sobbing.
Before night fell, Shabib reached the Syrian town of Sarmada, four miles from the sealed Turkish border. He crammed his family and what little they had been able to salvage into a friend’s two-room apartment and thought about the home he had left behind.
“A house is like a child. You nurture it … and I built it stone by stone, block by block,” Shabib said in a phone interview Wednesday. “How do you want someone not to be sad about leaving his house and become a refugee?”
For months, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have pecked at Idlib, which Assad has vowed to take back from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda.
A cease-fire brokered in September by Russia and Iran, both of them allies of Assad, and Turkey, the rebels’ top patron, had temporarily stayed the offensive. But it fell apart amid accusations by the Syrian government that Turkey had failed to fulfill its obligations and filter out Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from among the opposition’s ranks.
Since Dec. 19, when the onslaught began anew, the rebels had begun a tortuous retreat, with the government’s advance into villages and towns spurring fresh waves of displaced people, many of them residents previously uprooted from other rebel-held territories since taken back by Assad with the help of his Russian allies.
Shabib was one of the luckier of the estimated 3 million residents of Idlib province.
One of his neighbors, Amjad Shamaali, had been stranded for hours in Tal Mardikh, desperately seeking a driver willing to brave the airstrikes on the road from the village to the north. He finally found transportation, but wasn’t allowed to take anything other than the clothes he was wearing.
After he and his family escaped, they reached a makeshift camp settlement in the orchards west of the town of Saraqeb, a city some seven miles north of Tal Mardikh, but found no proper shelter.
“No housing, no tents, no assistance … nothing,” Shamaali said in an interview Thursday, adding that he had finally put up his family in the skeleton of a partially constructed building while he went searching for shelter to house them. Two days later, he was still unable to find anything he could afford, even as temperatures fell to the low 40s amid torrential rain over Syria’s north.
The escalation in the fighting appears to be focused on Maaret al-Numan, a town on the M5, a vital highway linking the Syrian capital Damascus to the country’s northern regions. Assad’s forces have long sought to secure the roadway to help implement their goal of taking back “every inch of the country.”
“I can’t specify any goal for these operations other than liberation; every inch we liberate is a return to the Syrian nation,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in an interview with the Arabic arm of the Russia Today news channel on Tuesday.
The operations have continued despite widespread condemnation by world leaders, including President Trump, who warned in a tweet on Thursday that “Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib province.”
“Don’t do it!” Trump tweeted. He added Turkey was “working hard to stop this carnage.”
Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province. Don’t do it! Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 26, 2019
Turkey is the rebels’ top patron and it is in its interest to have a cease-fire in place to forestall a wave of displaced Syrians crossing its border.
Yet there was little hint of any lull in the violence Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition activist network that monitors the fighting in Syria, said Assad’s forces had advanced into three villages that day alone and had begun intensive shelling of villages around Maaret al-Numan. Since mid-December, nearly 80 civilians have been killed, including children, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, the mass evacuations have left behind a landscape of ghost towns, even as aid groups struggle to handle the numbers of people in need.
“These displacements are adding pressure on generous host communities and on overcrowded camps,” said Ted Chaiban, regional director with UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, in a statement on Tuesday. “Many families still have no shelter at all and are sleeping out in the open.”