Desperate, Thousands of Syrians Flee Toward Turkish Border
With bloodshed and tensions rising between Syria and Turkey, the last rebel holdout of Idlib is turning into the biggest humanitarian crisis of the war.
As snow fell on northern Syria this past week, it covered thousands of fleeing families unable to find even a piece of tarp to shelter themselves.
The wintry weather, along with the bloody onslaught by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has turned the flight of displaced civilians in Idlib and Aleppo toward the Turkish border into the biggest humanitarian crisis yet in a war that for almost a decade has normalized mass atrocities. “No one prepared camps ahead of time, there are no tents, people are sleeping in cars and in the streets,” said Ahmad, a resident of northern Aleppo, who is attempting to help the displaced. (Like many of those interviewed for this story on WhatsApp, Ahmad wants only his first name used for fear of retribution.)
The lucky among them stay with relatives or rent a home, but very few can afford this. Homeowners in areas abutting the Turkish border are charging the displaced exorbitant sums in rent—a common price is $350 per month for a two-bedroom house, when an average salary in the region, which has rampant unemployment, is about $50.
According to new data from the United Nations, since Dec. 1, 2019, 689,000 civilians have been displaced by the government’s offensive against the last rebel holdout in Idlib, most of them women and children. Some 100,000 have been displaced only in the past week. The rapid progress of regime forces and waves of displacement it produced escalated tensions between Turkey and the Syrian forces backed by Russia. Another five Turkish soldiers were killed in recent days in an attack carried out by Assad’s forces, precipitating retaliation against Syrian army targets by Turkish forces dispatched to northwestern Syria.
“I think there are now more Turkish soldiers in Idlib than armed revolutionaries,” said Yasser, a tracker of regime airstrikes and military movement in Idlib, referring to the mass influx of Turkish soldiers and heavy weaponry into Idlib, the last bastion of the Syrian armed opposition. In early February, Turkey began dispatching multiple convoys made up of hundreds of jeeps, armored personnel carriers, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and electronic warfare equipment into Idlib, in an effort to prevent the collapse of the last rebel-held pocket in Syria, amid rapid regime advances against it.
The fate of Idlib’s 3 million to 4 million residents now depends on Turkey’s ability to deter further regime advances. In Ankara’s eyes, a mass influx of refugees would be politically destabilizing. Turkey’s willingness to send in thousands of troops and heavy weaponry with no air cover and against Russia’s wishes shows that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is willing to take significant risks to prevent the last rebel pocket from collapsing. Turkey established several new observation posts manned by newly arrived troops. After its observation posts came under attack in early February, Turkey began firing artillery at advancing regime forces on several occasions. Thus far, Turkey has not attempted to enter the fray with its air force, which has been significantly weakened due to purges after the 2016 attempted coup.
Russia and the Assad regime still control the skies and use this dominance to destroy hospitals, bakeries, and other civilian areas in what appears to be the purposeful depopulation of entire towns, pushing civilians to flee toward the shuttered Turkish border. About 1 million civilians have been displaced in Idlib, northwestern Syria, since the start of the Syrian regime’s offensive in late April 2019, according to U.N. data.
“These are people who’ve been displaced time and time again. People are completely exhausted, and the capacities of NGOs are also exhausted,” said Asmahan Dehny, the emergency response program coordinator at the Syrian humanitarian nongovernmental organization Violet, which helped evacuate impoverished families unable to afford their escape and recently established communal tents to receive them.
The prospect of returning to live under the Assad regime terrifies most Idlib residents, even as the rebels ruling over them lost much of their popular support due to their abusiveness. A majority of Idlib’s up to 4 million residents were displaced from their homes by the regime and expect to be executed or jailed and tortured if they fall into the regime’s hands. “Even people who have nothing to do with the revolution or the factions feel that they are the target,” said Maher, a displaced novelist residing in Idlib. Similarly to many others in Idlib with whom Foreign Policy spoke in recent days, he pointed to the case of Ahmad al-Jifal, a 69-year-old man with mental health issues, who refused to leave Maarat al-Numan. After the city was captured by a Russian-backed militia in January, the fighters executed him and set fire to his corpse.
But very few who are left can afford to escape Idlib. The cheapest and most perilous smuggling attempt to Turkey costs $350 and usually ends in being caught, beaten, and sent back by Turkish border guards. Despite the risks, a greater number of Idlib residents are making this trip, usually by borrowing from friends and relatives living abroad. According to Maher, “the fence along the border and the border police reinforcements on the Turkish side of the border are making smuggling incredibly difficult. There are people who’ve tried six, seven times to cross into Turkey, getting arrested and deported each time. People are expecting death.” He said he hopes to finish a novel he’s writing about a French and Syrian archeologist digging in the ancient city of Ugarit before the regime reaches his border village.
Veteran humanitarian NGO workers are at a loss about how to handle this unprecedented crisis. “Even if we manage to secure food and water for all the displaced, we can not provide them with shelter or areas that are safe from the torrential rains to set up a tent,” said Ziad al-Sebai, the director of the media office of the Syrian humanitarian NGO Watan. “Imagine how many babies from the previously displaced and the new waves will get sick and die due to the cold and malnutrition.”
A series of agreements between Russia and Turkey, which called for establishing a demilitarized zone in Idlib and allowed Turkey to erect observation posts in Idlib starting in late 2017, broke down in April 2019; negotiations between Russia and Turkey to revive it have not been successful. Russia is determined to achieve a decisive military solution for Idlib and told Turkey it would not accept a cease-fire, even with significant concessions from the rebels. This uncompromising position was pushed by the Russian Ministry of Defense, overriding less gung-ho elements in the Russian administration.
To make matters worse, in January, Iran became much more actively involved in the campaign against the last rebel-held pocket. Previously, Iranian officials promised Turkey to stay out of the fighting in the area, wishing to preserve their relationship with Turkey. The reopening of the dormant front in western Aleppo, manned by pro-Iranian militias (including Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani fighters overseen by the Quds Force) and units within the Syrian army that are close to Iran (such as the 4th Division), signaled a shift. The rebels, forced to rebuff attacks both in southern Idlib and western and southern Aleppo, could not hold their ground. The headway of the regime turned into an all-out stampede.
“Just being able to repel attacks has become a victory in an of itself,” said Mannar, a rebel with the National Liberation Front, hours after he was forced, with a small group of fighters, to withdraw from his village of Kafr Halab, ceding it to the Iranian-backed militias. “The regime annihilated the village.” Mannar has been fighting the regime since the age of 15. He is determined to return to the front after evacuating his family to the border.
The regime’s advances on the ground also stemmed from Russian support: Training and guidance from Russian officers and mercenaries boosted the capabilities of pro-regime militias, and night vision equipment provided by Russia allowed the regime’s forces to advance during the night. In 2019, Russia altered its targeting policy in Idlib. While previously, the regime and Russia relied on indiscriminate fire across the rebel-held territory to terrorize the population, break its spirit, kill, and destroy, they now concentrate their indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery shelling on stretches of territory close to the front lines, leading nearly all civilians to escape. At the same time, Russia began relying more heavily on surveillance drones that call in airstrikes by jets. These precise strikes ensured that fighters heading to and from the front lines are targeted and killed. Even groups as small as two fighters on a single motorcycle have been hit in these precise strikes.
“We have lost many [fighters] because of the drones. When we hear them, we truly feel immense fear,” said Qusay, a veteran fighter in the ranks of the Islamist jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. “The central fighter in their ranks is the drone,” he said, describing how he and a group of fighters got stuck in a house near the front lines and could not go out to even procure food for over a day because “the drones are always in the skies, searching, and unlike the jets, there is no warning when they take off” from military air bases.
Speaking to Foreign Policy over the messaging app Telegram, the communications director of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Taqi al-Din Omar, said that “when the Russian occupier and Iranian occupier (and particularly Lebanese Hezbollah) launched a large-scale offensive on Idlib, they attacked from multiple directions (at times from six directions at the same time), using incredibly intense air strikes and artillery. The occupiers were able to achieve superiority over the mujahideen, forcing them to retreat from bombed-out areas.”
While the regime is able to rely on a large army, with many of its soldiers press-ganged into service, as well as local and foreign Shiite militias, the rebels have been unable to properly compensate for their attrition. The armed opposition factions do not publicize their losses, but daily observation of death notices on Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups of rebels indicate that the numbers have long ago exceeded 1,000 who are not easily replaceable, as many were hardened fighters with years of experience in combat under heavy fire.
Recognizing their inability to resist the advancing pro-regime forces and wishing to avoid further attrition, the factions chose to withdraw much of their fighting force from the front lines when faced with the fierce regime onslaught. Amir, a fighter with Jaysh al-Nasr, a Free Syrian Army group, who was injured in the latest offensive, said that “right now, the factions still have strength, but we can’t attrition all of it. If all of us go down [to the front lines] we will not be able to resist for more than a month, while the regime can fight for years.” Echoing conversations with many rebels in recent months, he said, “I started losing hope. My morale is zero.”
The rapid losses of the opposition and the decisive role played by the foreign actors intervening in Idlib are making the population lose faith in the rebels’ ability and willingness to resist. Those removed from the battlefield—and often resentful of the leading rebel group in Idlib, the authoritarian Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—insist that a secret deal exists between Russia and Turkey under which certain areas will be “sold” or “surrendered” to the regime. By this logic, widely accepted in Idlib, resistance is futile. As a result, pleas by rebel leaders, rebel commanders, and preachers close to the factions for civilian men to remain in their homes and fight rather than retreat are met with a lackluster response.
The regime’s progress deprived hundreds of thousands of their homes, now thoroughly looted and at times torched by the conquering forces. The immense poverty of the population in Idlib meant that many could not afford to even hire a car to take them toward the Turkish border and had to be rescued by the Syria Civil Defense in large convoys, able to carry only a few belongings with them. Those more well-off left with the entire contents of their houses, knowing they will not be able to return.
Feb. 11: This story has been updated with comment.