Syria Weekly: Assad regime captures ghost town Maarat Al-Numan
Maarat Al-Numan had been a symbol of the peaceful resistance to the Assad regime, with weekly protests organised by activists in the city over the past eight years, which ended this week in the regime's capture of a ghost town reduced to ruins.
The fall of Maarat Al-Numan was almost inevitable after two months of regime siege and daily punishing bombing. The rebel defenders had complained of a lack of support, while the regime is determined to capture the M5 highway which runs through Maarat, linking the capital Damascus with Aleppo.
After a maelstrom of bombing and shelling of this once bustling Idlib city, opposition defences collapsed this week with fighters fleeing north or dying in battle.
Footage showed the cost of the victory, with troops patrolling deserted streets and a backdrop of row-after-row of shelled out homes. After the last "mopping up" operations were completed, regime troops were pictured shamelessly loading pick-up trucks with possessions left behind by residents during the rout.
Pro-government media could not disguise the complete absence of a ticker tape welcome for the regime fighters in Maarat Al-Numan, or even any signs of life.
Maarat residents chose to leave their homes and found shelter under trees or in disused buildings in northern Idlib, rather than stay behind and put their lives in the hands of the regime troops.
These fears were confirmed with the tragic story of one of the only Maarat Al-Numan residents who stayed behind, an elderly man known to traipse its apocalyptic streets wrapped in a thick green ankle-length overcoat.
His fate was revealed after one soldier from the regime's Tigers Forces posed for a photo after entering Maarat Al-Numan, resting one foot on a heap of rags which on closer inspected revealed a glimpse of flesh.
Images such as these have been witnessed countless times during the war, with "victorious" regime fighters reducing the bodies of enemy combatants to carcasses, standing over them in trophy-style photos.
In this case, the dead man was not an opposition fighter but Ahmed Jaffal, a 70-year-old man with special needs, who had refused all attempts by White Helmets rescue workers to convince him to join the evacuation of Maarat Al-Numan, Ranim Ahmed, communications officer at The Syria Campaign told The New Arab.
"He didn't want to leave his beloved home. When regime forces entered the city the next day, a photo was published by regime thugs showing Ahmed lying on the ground after they had killed him and burned his body," Ahmed said.
|Maarat Al-Numan was under regime bombardment for the past nine years. Many neighbourhoods were destroyed but its people would rebuild every time to continue with their lives
- Ranim Ahmed, communications officer at The Syria Campaign
"They were celebrating his death while humiliating his body. It was a clear message from the regime that this is the fate of civilians who'd return and live under its control."
What regime media described as the "liberation" of Maarat Al-Numan is symptomatic of the Assad regime's brutal nine-year campaign to crush the opposition - regardless of the cost - and extinguish any signs of governance outside its control.
Before the regime offensive on Maarat Al-Numan began in December, the population of the city and surrounding villages had swelled to around 380,000, after an influx of internal refugees from other parts of Syria. Within a few weeks, the city and its suburbs were completely emptied of its inhabitants.
In January, the Syrian regime and Russia destroyed ten schools, eight markets, four civil defence centres and four medical facilities in a vindictive campaign of airstrikes on southern Idlib province, according to the White Helmets. It was further proof that civilian infrastructure is being deliberately targeted by the regime to make opposition areas unlivable.
"Maarat Al-Numan was under regime bombardment for the past nine years. Many neighbourhoods were destroyed but its people would rebuild every time to continue with their lives," Ahmed said.
After the regime intensified its assault on Maarat on 15 December, homes, infrastructure and emergency facilities were destroyed in successive waves of airstrikes, reducing Maarat to rubble.
A massive evacuation of the city organised by the White Helmets, NGOs such as Kids Paradise, activists and ordinary civilians began, although even on the run vehicles carrying refugee families were targeted by regime artillery and Russian aircraft.
According to the UN this week, around 400,000 people were displaced when Russia and the Syrian regime escalated their bombing of southern Idlib on 1 December – around 80 percent of them women and children.
|All of Maarat's residents left their homes in December and January due to the brutal attacks and massacres by regime and Russia. The displaced were targeted while fleeing on the main highway. Most of them fled to northern areas where it is safer, took shelter in unfinished buildings or makeshift camps
- Ranim Ahmed, communications officer at The Syria Campaign
"All of Maarat's residents left their homes in December and January due to the brutal attacks and massacres by regime and Russia. The displaced were targeted while fleeing on the main highway. Most of them fled to northern areas where it is safer, took shelter in unfinished buildings or makeshift camps," Ahmed added.
Regime troops moved into the husk of a city, completely devoid of life and with almost all buildings and infrastructure in Maarat Al-Numan destroyed.
"What may be celebrated as a victory by a war criminal is a devastating blow to millions of Syrians who believe in freedom and peace for Syria," said Laila Kiki, executive director of The Syria Campaign.
"Maarat Al-Numan was a beacon of the peaceful revolution and its loss is yet another failure of the international community to protect civilians."
Maarat's 380,000 residents are now living in fields and orchards in northern Idlib and exposed to freezing temperatures due to overflowing refugee camps running at full capacity.
"Heroic humanitarian groups are doing all they can to help the hundreds of thousands fleeing in search of safety, but international funding is pitiful, and the scale of the crisis is growing all the time," Kiki added.
"People are crying out for action to stop the bombing of schools, hospitals and homes and urgent help to save lives."
Further north along the M5 highway lies the town of Saraqeb, where the regime appears to be applying the same blueprint as it did for Maarat Al-Numan – target, empty and capture.
Over the past three days, these areas have been subject to 200 air strikes, with a bakery and clinic targeted in the town of Ariha on Thursday killing 12 people.
On Wednesday, the bombing of the village of Kafarlata in southern Idlib left 21 people dead, including a whole family.
The Syria Campaign said that the residents of Saraqeb and Ariha have fled the towns under heavy bombardment, fearing a repeat of the Maarat Al-Numan episode.
On Friday, a White Helmets centre in Saraqeb was targeted in an air strike, destroying the building but fortunately killing no rescue workers.
Opposition areas of Aleppo province - where some Maarat Al-Numan residents have fled to - have also been subject to horrendous bombardments and appear to be another target of the regime.
Meanwhile, millions of Syrians meanwhile living outside the country fear returning due as long as the regime stays in charges while there are no signs that reconstruction money to rebuild the country will come.
Analysts believe much of the money generated from Syria's few profitable companies in the gas, logistics and telecommunications sectors will be ushered out of the country to Iran and Russia, which have been suffering their own financial crises.
Even regime loyalists are increasingly frustrated with the status quo, with a series of protests in areas such as Suweida against rising living costs, high unemployment and the collapsing lira.
Meanwhile, resentment lingers in recaptured opposition areas such as Daraa, where regime troops and officials have been killed in a new insurgency.
After nine years of war the regime's touted victory is a Pyrrhic one, leaving Assad in charge of Syria only in name. The country has been reduced to a trail of impoverished or ruined cities, a bankrupt economy, and a government forever indebted to its foreign allies.
Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin