Tens of thousands fleeing a Syrian government offensive have nowhere to hide

Internally displaced Syrians carry their belongings as they arrive at a refugee camp near the Bab al-Salam crossing, across from Turkey's Kilis province, on the outskirts of the northern border town of Azaz, Syria, Feb. 6, 2016. 
Osman Orsal

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Civilians fleeing a Russian-backed government offensive in Aleppo are turning back from Syria’s border with Turkey as makeshift camps set up to deal with the influx have become overwhelmed.

The camps in and around the border town of Azaz were hastily constructed over the past couple of days to provide shelter for tens of thousands fleeing the fighting further south. But the speed and ferocity of the offensive has caught aid organizations by surprise, and many have been left out in the cold and rain. 

“Dying is much better than being humiliated in this place,” said Ayman, a father of two from Tal Rifaat, which lies in the path of a push by the Syrian army. “There is no water, no services and my kids are sick,” he told GlobalPost by phone from the Syrian side of the border. 

Pictures emerging from the Syrian side of the border showed large groups of people huddled on patches of farmland. Ayman said he would return to his hometown tomorrow, despite the danger.  

Ahmad, 29, fled the town of Hraytan in the countryside north of Aleppo two days ago in the face of massive Russian airstrikes. 

“The last day in Hraytan, before I left, three buildings were bombed with people inside. The house where I was living was half destroyed. So I decided to leave.”

Internally displaced Syrians who fled from Aleppo arrive in the village of Mabrouka, western countryside of Ras al-Ain, Syria Feb. 6, 2016.

Now at a camp in Azaz with his sister and her four children, he says thousands are turning back. 

“Turkey provided temporary tents, but there aren’t enough. It’s raining. This area is for agriculture. It’s mud, so you can’t even walk. So they started to go back to the front lines with the regime. It’s very dangerous but the situation was very bad.” 

The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which set up the camps on the Syrian side of the border, says approximately 50,000 people are seeking safety there, and many more may be on the way. 

“If the bombs go on, more will come. There are lots of people leaving villages around Aleppo. There are lots of raids on the area,” said Mustafa Ozbek, a spokesman for the organization. “Many are walking. They are arriving tired and exhausted. They left everything behind.”

The IHH said it has been providing food, water and blankets, and will build more camps to house the new arrivals.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to the growing crisis on Sunday by saying that the border would be opened “if necessary,” but gave no indication of when. 

Surrounded on all sides

Over the past week, the Syrian government has largely encircled the rebel-held area of Aleppo city, striking a potentially lethal blow to the patchwork of rebel groups who control the area. With the Islamic State to the east, and Kurdish fighters to the west, the stretch of land from Aleppo to the border with Turkey was one of the last strongholds of rebels seen by the West as suitable replacements for President Bashar al-Assad, with notable exceptions. 

Russia contends that it only targets Jabhat al-Nusra — Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate that operates in the same area — and the Islamic State. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg countered that "intense Russia air strikes, mainly targeting opposition groups in Syria, is undermining the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict." 

The offensive torpedoed peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition — the first such efforts to end the war in nearly two years — before they had even begun, with the opposition accusing the government and its Russian and Iranian allies of using the talks as cover to press for an advantage on the ground. It came on the back of government gains in other parts of the country, including in Latakia province and in the Damascus suburbs. 

With the main supply route from the Turkish border to Aleppo cut in half by government forces, rebels face the very real threat of losing control of the city. 

People inspect the damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 5, 2016.

Russian airstrikes over have increased dramatically in Aleppo over the past week.   

“It’s very bad. We have Russian airstrikes three to six times a day. They use ballistic rockets, cluster bombs, vacuum bombs. Sometimes the regime supports the Russians with barrel bombs,” said Munir Mustafa, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) — a team of rescue workers also known as the White Helmets — in Aleppo.

Mustafa said that as many as 100,000 people have fled Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, heading to the border and countryside to the west. 

“They think it’s safe, but there are no more safe places in Syria,” he said. 

Even those who have reached the border cannot escape the airstrikes entirely. Ahmad, who traveled with his sister, said: “The Russian airstrikes are hitting very near the camp. There were 10 raids two days ago at night. Lots of people were injured.”

Preparing for the siege 

In the city of Aleppo, residents are preparing for the prospect of a government siege — a tactic that has been used in other areas around the country to force rebel fighters to surrender. 

“People are terrified. Psychologically speaking their nerves are crushed,” said Saad, 31, speaking by phone from Aleppo. “There were no airstrikes in the city today, only on the road going north. We know this process: they start attacking the only road out to tell us there is a siege and they are taking over this place.”

The price of food and fuel is increasing in the city as people store supplies in anticipation of a prolonged siege. Diesel has increased in cost by 20 percent over the last two days, according to Saad, and money exchangers are running out of cash. 

“People who are planning to stay are trying to store food, but they cannot afford to do much. People here are very poor now. They can only last for a few days,” said Mustafa, who added that the SCD was also storing up supplies. 

“We have prepared some materials for our work — spare parts for our vehicles, fuel, medicines — but these cannot last for more than a month and a half. So if the road to Aleppo is cut, we can’t go on for very long." 

Smoke rises after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in Anadan city, northern Aleppo countryside, Syri, Feb. 3, 2016.

It’s not just starvation that residents of rebel-held Aleppo fear, but retribution. 

“People are really worried about the government taking over Aleppo because they are afraid of a sectarian massacre,” Mustafa said.

“We have two scenarios: the city is besieged like Madaya, if the regime takes over the city we will suffer a sectarian massacre. In both cases it’s horrible.”

In any case, Mustafa says he will not leave the city. 

“I will be the last person to leave Aleppo. If there is one person, I will stay to help them.”