Syrians did not risk their lives and rise up against Mr. Assad’s dictatorship to replace it with another. Many local councils issued statements rejecting H.T.S.’s authority in local governance or declaring their neutrality in fighting between rebel groups. Hundreds of local activists coordinated opposition to H.T.S.’s control and called for demilitarization of their communities through media campaigns and public demonstrations. Courageously, they replaced the black jihadist flag with the flag of the revolution. In April, medical workers held protests against infighting and kidnapping. Women organized against H.T.S.’s discriminatory edicts, such as the imposition of strict dress codes and requiring widows to live with a close male relative.
The regime’s reconquest of Ghouta, Daraa and other areas has been accompanied by gross human rights violations. There have been waves of arrests of perceived dissidents. Men have been forcibly conscripted into the regime’s army. Many have been made to sign documents that they would not engage in protests or anti-regime activity and have been pressured to submit information about rebel groups. Journalists, humanitarian workers and opposition activists live in fear of being targeted.
The reconquest of Idlib would doubtless lead to the same consequences. The civil activism that operates in the light would be crushed, and promising democratic experiments would be eradicated, leaving extremists to flourish in the dark.
While a strong civil society is one of the best defenders against the spread of extremism, bombing campaigns and state-led terror risk increasing the popular appeal of jihadist groups. Yet today, key donors to Syrian civil society, such as the United States and Britain, are withdrawing funding for Syrian organizations in Idlib for fear it could fall into terrorist hands. Given the enormity of the humanitarian crisis that will most likely unfold, the withdrawal of desperately needed assistance is likely to further compound the suffering of civilians.
Worst of all, there is a growing international consensus that the regime is the best solution for the devastation it has wrought. The international community is now shifting its focus toward reconstruction, rehabilitating the regime through rewarding those responsible for the country’s devastation, and pressuring refugees to return to a country where their safety is far from assured.
The people of Idlib are aware that they will probably be abandoned to a fate similar to their countrymen in Daraa and Ghouta. Anger at their betrayal by the supposed democratic powers, already deeply rooted, is growing. The residents understand that those who favor “stability” at any price perceive their continued resistance as an inconvenience. But the resumption of the regime’s control in Idlib will not lead to peace, and still less to stability. It will eradicate the democratic alternative to tyranny, leaving the jihadists — who thrive on violence, oppression and foreign occupation — as the last men standing, to constitute a long-term threat to the region and the world.
*Leila Al-Shami (@LeilaShami) is a co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES