Tuesday, May 21, 2019

RLPB 503. Syria: the battle for Idlib heats up

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 503 | Wed 22 May 2019
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-- Christians imperilled
-- by Elizabeth Kendal

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Idlib Governorate in Syria's north-west, bordering Turkey, is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria [see RLPB 307 (29 April 2015)]. Most of Idlib's jihadists are aligned with either the al-Qaeda-led Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) or the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF). Along with fighting the Syrian government, the HTS and NLF are also fighting each other. Under a Turkey-Russia de-escalation agreement brokered in September 2018, Turkey monitors the jihadist-held territory of 'Greater Idlib' (Idlib Governorate plus areas under rebel control in the adjoining governorates of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia), while Russia monitors Syrian government-held territory. Russia maintains humanitarian corridors and encourages civilians to flee. The rebels, however, routinely block these corridors to retain civilians as human shields for propaganda purposes. It is classic asymmetric conflict.

It has long been understood that Syria cannot allow Idlib to remain a terror sanctuary from where missiles are perpetually launched into civilian centres. On 6 May the Syrian Arab Army, with Russian support, launched an offensive in the north-west to drive the jihadists out of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia governorates and end the rebel shelling of residential centres -- shelling which directly violates the de-escalation agreement. On 10 May the UN (relying heavily on rebel propaganda) chastised the Syrian government and warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

On Sunday 12 May rebel mortars struck Al-Suqaylabiyah, a Greek Orthodox Christian city in the north-west of Hama Governorate. Father Maher Haddad, a local priest, reports: 'A rocket struck near a group of children, instantly killing five [ages 6 to 10] and wounding [at least 8] others … [a] woman was killed in a nearby street by a separate rocket.' The next day one civilian was killed and seven wounded when more rebel mortars rained down on the Christian city, once a hub for healthcare, education and mediation. According to local sources, the mortars were fired from Idlib by militants belonging to the Turkey-backed NLF. Syrian government forces retaliated by firing shells toward jihadist positions in southern Idlib.

In Latakia Governorate, which is home to large communities of Alawites and Christians, a fierce battle is raging for the strategic hill-top town of Kabani. Militants belonging to HTS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated, ethnic-Uyghur Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) hold the hill and the Syrian Army has been taking heavy losses and struggling to make any gains at all. On Friday 17 May the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Abu Mohammed al-Julani, called for a united jihadist front and appealed for jihadists to advance the cause by opening other battle fronts, especially in western Aleppo. Al-Masdar News reports that Turkey -- which would happily preserve Idlib as a sanctuary for its jihadist proxies -- has re-deployed 'Euphrates Shield' troops from northern Aleppo into Idlib; they are now reportedly only 2km from Syrian positions. On 18 May the Syrian government declared a unilateral ceasefire; however, clashes continue.

Al-Suqaylabiyah's grieving mothers (source)


* shield his precious Church in Syria, especially in the north-west where conflict is escalating; may the Lord preserve and sustain his Church that she will endure to be light and salt and a source of great blessing to Syria's,war-ravaged and traumatised, 'harassed and helpless' peoples.

When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.' (Matthew 9:36-38 ESV)

* sustain, comfort and encourage those courageous church leaders -- priests, nuns, lay-workers -- who continue to resist the temptation to flee their homeland so they can serve the suffering and persecuted Church, preach the Gospel to the lost and reflect Jesus Christ to a shattered people yearning for peace, truth, love and hope.

* intervene to bring peace and security to Syria; may the jihadists be defeated and may religious liberty be preserved so that Christians who fled to save their families will have confidence to return and rebuild.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7 ESV)


Idlib Governorate in Syria's north-west, bordering Turkey, is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. Syria cannot allow Idlib to remain a terror sanctuary from where missiles are perpetually launched into civilian centres. On 6 May the Syrian Army launched an offensive to drive the jihadists back and end the shelling of civilian centres. On 12 May rebel missiles fired from Idlib struck Al-Suqaylabiyah, a Greek Orthodox Christian city in northern Hama. Five children playing together were killed instantly while a woman was killed nearby; eight were wounded. The next day, one civilian was killed and seven wounded when the jihadists shelled Al-Suqaylabiyah again. Jihadists are also threatening western Aleppo and northern Latakia, home for many Christians yearning for peace and security. Please pray for Syria and its Church.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com