The first thing that struck me when I saw Idlib, the rebel-held province in northwestern Syria, in April last year was how green the country was. Olive and cherry trees lined the pockmarked roads leading from the Turkish border down to the province’s towns. Smoke rose in the distance in the aftermath of an airstrike or an exploding shell, and the buildings in most towns were scarred by blows from the sky.
I had traveled to Idlib to report on the chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which killed over 80 people. I remember watching Abdulhamid al-Yousef, a father of two, hold his son and daughter before their burial; they were poisoned by the very air they breathed. According to the independent United Nations Commission of Inquiry, President Assad’s air force was responsible for the chemical gas attack, which killed Mr. Yousef’s wife and children, along with several other relatives.
A friend trying to comfort the distraught Mr. Yousef told him a story about “al-sirat,” a bridge that Muslims believe people must cross on the day of judgment. Al-sirat is believed to be thinner than a hair and leads to the gates of paradise. “On the day of judgment, those who lose their children and bear the tragedy with forbearance will be reunited with them,” the friend said. “Their children will have wings and will fly them across al-sirat to the gates of paradise.”
Mr. Yousef seemed to wake up. “And their mother too? Ahmad and Aya will be there? And Hammoudi and Ammoura?” he said. Ahmad and Aya were his children. Hammoudi and Ammoura, his nephews.
The moment still gnaws at me.
Over the past week, a gathering storm pointed to an impending assault by Mr. Assad’s regime and his Russian patrons on Idlib, with aid agencies warning of a humanitarian catastrophe that could drive new waves of refugees into neighboring Turkey. Russian airstrikes have already killed 13 people in Idlib. Mr. Assad’s forces are shelling the area, and his Iranian and Russian allies have chosen dehumanizing language and described the militants in Idlib as “this festering abscess that needs to be liquidated.” [Continue reading…]