Defying all dangers, Idlib residents pour out to protest Assad.
BEIRUT/ISTANBUL: In cities and towns across Syria's last opposition-held province, Idlib, residents poured into the streets Friday to demonstrate against President Bashar Assad's government in defiance of an expected offensive to retake the territory.
In the provincial capital, Idlib city, and in towns including Kafranbel, Dana, Azaz, Maaret al-Numan and Al-Bab, demonstrators filled the streets after noon prayers and chanted against Assad, raising the tri-color green, white and black flag that has become the banner of Syria's 2011 uprising, activists said.
"The rebels are our hope; Turks are our brothers; the terrorists are Bashar, Hezbollah and Russia," read a banner carried by residents in the village of Kneiset Bani Omar, referring to Turkey which backs the opposition, and Lebanon's Hezbollah and Russia that have joined the war along with Assad's forces.
"There will be no solution in Syria without Assad's fall," read another banner carried in the northern village of Mhambel.
The demonstrations were reported on the activist-run sites Aleppo Media Center, Orient News, and other social media pages.
Fridays have become the customary day for protests throughout the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings that swept through the region.
Assad's government and its backers, Russia and Iran, say Idlib is ruled by terrorists, and have threatened to seize it by force.
Wissam Zarqa, a university teacher in Idlib, said demonstrators were flying the tri-color flag to rebut the government line that Idlib is dominated by the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
The province, population 3 million, is now the final shelter for close to 1.5 million displaced Syrians that fled fighting in other parts of Syria.
Many say they will not return to government-ruled areas.
Government and Russian forces bombed towns and villages in the province earlier this week, killing more than a dozen civilians and damaging two hospitals. But the strikes eased Wednesday amid talks between the opposition's main regional sponsor Turkey, and Russia and Turkey.
A pro-Assad source in Syria said: "There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not cancelled, but we have time."
A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a "political tug of war" over Idlib, accompanied by airstrikes on militants from HTS.
Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.
"It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way," said one of the sources, Col. Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again Friday.
Turkey has warned strongly against military action, saying it would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Its military and defense chiefs visited border areas Friday to inspect troop reinforcements sent to its Hatay and Gaziantep provinces.
Turkey has 12 military posts inside Idlib province, and activists reported Thursday that Turkish reinforcements crossed over into Syria to fortify the installations.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with "all actors in Syria."
"We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib," he said, repeating Turkey's call for targeted operations against extremist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.
"We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone -- civilians, women, children -- like this in
the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane," he said on a visit to Pakistan. Turkish presidential aide Ibrahim Kalin said after talks with Russian, German and French officials in Istanbul that they agreed the consequences of an attack on Idlib would be severe and a refugee wave would impact not just Turkey but Europe too."Our expectation is to maintain the current status in Idlib, protecting the civilians and not creating a humanitarian crisis," Kalin told reporters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are slated to meet Monday, Cavusoglu said.
"We will continue our efforts with Iran and with Russia. ... [and] on international platforms as well," Cavusoglu said in comments carried live on Turkish TV. Turkish media said the two would meet in the Russian city of Sochi.
The United Nations said that in the first 12 days of September, over 30,000 people have been internally displaced by an intense aerial bombing campaign. Most of the displaced headed toward the border with Turkey, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, packing already overcrowded camps there.
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