The letter that follows is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where international reporters cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The author is writing under a pseudonym for his own protection. Funding for this project was provided by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. Istanbul-based journalist Roy Gutman edited.
Idlib, Syria—You can’t imagine the security grip this city is under. Idlib, the capital of the only province in Syria that rebel forces now control, lives in fear of being bombed. Masked, armed men roam the town. Whole streets are blocked off to protect the leaders of the Islamist militia that rules here.
Fear has paralyzed the economy because no one will start up a new business in a city with an airstrike every day—on some days up to 12. Everyone who can, heads to the suburbs, including my family, who live in a farm village.
Much worse could follow. If Aleppo falls, Idlib could be the next city under siege. Residents are storing food in preparation. Some have left for the Turkish border. People expect a big revenge from the regime because so many rebel fighters have come here, after having been expelled from other fronts, especially from the western suburbs of Damascus. But they, too, leave as quickly as they can.
Yet the bombing makes no sense to anyone. Russia and the Assad regime say they’re attacking terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July, when it publicly broke its affiliation with Al Qaeda. In fact, the regime targets are outdoor markets, private houses, factories, schools, offices, and the university—but not the Islamists who run the city, nor military positions.
The United States, which calls Nusra’s new name a deceptive rebranding and still considers it a terrorist group, is now sending drones over the province to kill Nusra leaders.
But on the streets of this city, known for its mosaic of different religions and its tolerance, it looks very different from both the Russian and the American depictions. When Nusra took control here in March 2015, Idlib entered a dark tunnel of deprivation. Public education deteriorated, the university was closed, and public debate was stifled. But since Nusra broke with Qaeda and changed its name, the city has become a lot more livable.
People here still call it Nusra and feel suffocated by their masks, their guns, and their arrogant manner. But daily life has improved since July. Most restrictions on dress have been lifted. The Hisba, or morality police, are no longer on the streets to enforce them, nor are the women’s police. The Islamic police are demoralized. Even soldiers say their motive for fighting is the pay.