A New Force Emerges In Syrian War: The Women Of Idlib

The difficulties of about 3 million people encircled by hostile forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province is continually worsening, according to UN officials and several aid agencies who fear an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.

The province is considered a place of last resort, where many Syrian families find shelter after being displaced from other parts of the country. However, some are concerned that there is no way out of Idlib, describing it as a “kill-box.” Just last week, Assad improved his position by controlling all areas around Damascus. There are daily aerial bombardments on Idlib by the Russian and Syrian forces and these events are expected to increase over the coming weeks. As the province is the last remaining opposition-controlled area, there is growing concern that Assad will launch his final airstrikes, intensifying the humanitarian crisis even further.

According to different advocacy groups, there are many civil initiatives providing an extraordinary and innovative range of services for this crisis based on local demands. Many of them are informal and are led by women who have lost their husbands, fathers and sons during the war, having been driven into leadership roles. The war has created a situation where traditional societal convention towards female behaviour has been shattered.

A UN aid chief stressed, “I cannot overstate the importance of sustaining and scaling up the international response.” Yet nations alone cannot be expected to fight against extremist groups. To merely bomb the problems out of existence would ultimately serve to exacerbate a situation of poverty and chaos – circumstances under which terrorists and other extremist groups thrive. Instead it is important to help maintain a resourced civilization that is able to contain, and eventually defeat, these groups. Idlib’s society has the potential for free and democratic institutions and has proven in the past that there is another side to Syria.

The province has become a meeting point for armed opposition groups, including about 10 000 Jihadists, some with al-Qaida links, who dominate much of the area. The situation in Idlib is horrific with about 1.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, there has been no innovative solution or long-term planning from the global community as of the present. Funding to local Syrian groups has been cut back dramatically, having their regime and both extremist groups suffer extreme hardships.

Women and girls have endured disproportionally in the Syrian conflict as conservative extremist groups have excluded women from leadership roles. However, in the northwestern province females are fighting back. According to a report: “Facing attacks from all sides…Idlib continues to operate with remarkable effectiveness and determination… In areas best-known internationally for massacres, there are untold stories of hundreds of groups providing the services civilians need to survive.”

A new report Idlib Lives – The Untold Story of Heroes says that “…ideas for a just and equitable society should come from civil society – it is a call to those with the remit to support them to do so.” In this sense, humanitarian responses should start recognizing self-help initiatives as institutions and keep them autonomous, allowing them to choose appropriate responses to circumstances as they are needed.

These self-aid initiatives are much needed for post-war Syria. “Idlib’s civil society represents the best chance for free and democratic institutions…[it] stands at a critical point, but if international politicians, donors, NGOs and policymakers invest in civil society, we will see ideas and solutions flourish,” the international anti-war organization Peace Direct reports.