After seven years of war in Syria, so many men have been killed or left the country that women are now a dominant presence in many parts of Syrian society. This is especially true in Idlib, the last province still largely controlled by opposition forces and home to more than a million people who fled the war from elsewhere.

Oddly enough, with the Assad regime preparing to take the province by force, the women of Idlib are now playing a role in what happens next. According to reports from Idlib, civil activists led by women are standing up to jihadist militant groups, such Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), that control many places in Idlib. Getting rid of the estimated 10,000 militants would remove the main excuse given by the Syrian regime to attack the province. It might also influence ongoing negotiations among major powers, such as Russia and Turkey, aimed at ending the war.

Turkey, which shares a border with Idlib, commands 12 observation points around the province. It has also been trying for more than a year to weaken the hold of the militants in order to prevent the Assad regime, along with Russia war jets, from attacking Idlib. Yet much of the resistance to HTS and other militants is being led by civil activists – many of them women. 

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“The women-led organizations offer a vision of a more equitable and democratic society in Syria and offer a powerful counter-argument to the conservative vision offered by HTS and other Islamist groups,” states a recent report, “Idlib Lives – The Untold Story of Heroes.” The report was done by the Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group, and Peace Direct, an international antiwar organization.

“Facing attacks from all sides, civil society in Idlib continues to operate with remarkable effectiveness and determination,” the report says. “In areas best known internationally for massacres, there are untold stories of hundreds of groups providing the services civilians need to survive.”

HTS has lately faced open protests in Idlib, a sign of its weakening hold on the province. In 2017, a survey found 73 percent of people in Idlib reject the HTS-affiliated governing bodies.

This women-led shift against HTS could give Turkey more leverage to dictate a peaceful outcome for Idlib. “It is important for all of us to neutralize these radical groups,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said last week.

As Syrian tanks prepare to take Idlib with the aid of Russian air forces now gathering in the region, peace for Idlib – and all of Syria – could be in the hands of women who have learned from experience that war is not the way to settle a country’s differences.

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