2015 was the heyday for the Sunni Islamist rebellion in northwestern Syria. Flush with arms from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States the rebel Army of Conquest coalition led by al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham captured their second provincial capital (they had taken Raqqa together with ISIS in 2013).
The 500-1000 government soldiers in Idlib found themselves outnumbered and overpowered and pulled back within days. But there were fighters who didn’t have that luxury. The National Defense Force militia fighters from the nearby Shia settlements fought on. As a community which according to Salafi teachings had “abandoned Islam” the Shia inhabitants of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya were in the best case were looking at expulsion, in the worst case they were looking at the men being slaughtered and their women and children sold into slavery. Understandably neither retreat nor surrender were an option.
They could succeeded in halting the radical Islamist rebels from breaking into their two remaining settlements but were never enough to prevent them from taking anything else they wanted in Idlib. The result was a siege of their communities that has now gone on for over one year and a half.
At one point a few hundred were evacuated in a deal with the rebels that saw the latter evacuated from a rebel-held enclave near Damascus, but for the most part they’re been stuck there, men, women and children pretty much without hope of relief.
Occasionally aid convoys bringing food will reach them — in exchange for similar convoys delivering food to rebel enclaves in the south — but their only other contact with the outside world occurs when lumbering transport planes appear in the sky above them and airdrop badly needed supplies (food and hopefully ammunition). The planes were first Syrian, then Russian, and since late 2015 they are also Iranian.
The Iranians ironically fly the American-made C-130 transport planes purchased by the Shah before the 1979 revolution. Thus ironically we have a situation where American equipment like the vaunted anti-tank TOW missiles bolstered the Sunni islamist rebels to where they could rampage across Idlib but is also helping feed and defend the Idlib Shia against their sectarian fanaticism — albeit no thanks to the United States but rather the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For once at least the ancient C-130s (they date to the 1950s) are not being used to aid an invasion of this or that exotic country, but instead to help defend vulnerable communities on the ground (this one about 20,000 strong) from the worst blowback of reckless American meddling in foreign affairs.