Syria Weekly: A humanitarian crisis unfolds on Turkey's border with Idlib

Syria Weekly: A humanitarian crisis unfolds on Turkey's border with Idlib
Idlib province has been hit by more bombing this week, in a deadly campaign threatening to uproot millions more civilians.
6 min read
09 February, 2020
Most of the refugees on the Turkish border are children [Getty]
In 2016, Bashar Al-Assad told his nascent parliament that he would retake "every inch" of opposition territories and bring the whole of Syria back under regime control

The speech was made months after Russia intervened in the Syria war, and such warnings by Assad were no longer acts of hubris but very real threats of annihilation and destruction.

Each area of land captured by the regime has meant the deaths and maiming for countless civilians, with the regime blasting its way through opposition areas, emptying towns and cities in a wave of butchery.

Over the past two weeks two of the largest towns in Idlib province - Maarat Al-Numan and Saraqeb - have fallen to the regime, but left without residents and gutted of infrastructure due to total destruction unleashed on these areas.

Humanitarian crisis

More than half-a-million civilians - 80 percent of them women and children - have been uprooted in the regime assault over the past two months, according to the UN.

Such is the determination of the regime to "capture every inch" of Syria, it has sparked the world's worst refugee crisis with no sign of it abating.

In the past two weeks, 350,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Idlib and Aleppo provinces and huge swathes of Syria left without inhabitants. 

"Almost all civilians in the southern and eastern cities and towns of Idlib countryside have fled, as well as the southern and western countryside of Aleppo," Merna Alhasan, a Syrian journalist in Idlib province told The New Arab.

"There is no place for them to go except for several towns and cities in the northern countryside of Idlib on the border with Turkey."

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are sleeping in mosques, under tarpaulin, or in the streets or open fields waiting to see what will happen next but it is unlikely they will be able to return home.

A recent poll found that nine-out-of-ten Syrian refugees recently uprooted in Idlib said they would not return their towns if they are under regime control, even if Russia "guaranteed" their safety.

Despite stronger words by the West in recent days deploring Russia and the regime's acts in Idlib, few hold any hope that the US or European countries will intervene to end the bloodbath.

Their only hope is Turkey. There has been a huge military build-up of Turkish armour on the Syria border in recent days, due to Ankara's tensions with the regime.

Bleak days

Activists are organising the evactuation of civilians from towns targeted in the regime assault to safer areas along the Turkish border and providing food, blankets and some clothes to refugees. There is little more they can do for now.

The conditions on the border are bleak, with one NGO worker telling The New Arab they are expecting the situation to worsen as more flee the bombing.

It's a horror beyond imagination and as the world watches silently.
- Hasan Almosa, Kids Paradise

Hasan Almosa, founder of Kids Paradise said that due to the overwhelming numbers of new refugees each day, activists and NGO workers are faced with the difficult decision of whether to prioritise food, shelter, medicine, or sanitation.

"These are the worst conditions yet in Syria's nine-year-long conflict. Families are crowded in muddy, overstretched camps in a shrinking area between the closed Turkish border and the front lines - and they're even being bombed in their vehicles on the road," he told The New Arab.

Hundreds of women and children are living under the same basic shelters, with mothers threatening suicide unless they can get their own tent or home.

"There are no options for the people. The most immediate priority is to stop the aerial attacks on civilians in Idlib. It's a horror beyond imagination and as the world watches silently as cities that resisted both Assad and extremists are destroyed and emptied of their residents," Almosa added.

Kids Paradise have been working on the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from southern Idlib and western Aleppo, providing snacks and water for the refugees.

A new challenge is providing drinkable water and food to the newly displaced in over 50 makeshift camps along the Turkish border. Kids Paradise and others are organising new campaigns to fund the emergency operations.

The organisation is providing 6,000 kilos of bread to 30,000 refugees each day, but there are new challenges threatening to overwhelm the aid workers.

"Hundreds of thousands of people who fled to the north of Idlib are looking for any shelter even for even one square meter to live in. The situation is indescribable, as the need is increasing but with no way to support them," Almosa said.

"Many families are sitting under trucks in order to protect themselves for the raining. People are looking to survive for one more day with no clear future for them."

The solution to ending the crisis would be through negotiations between Russia and Turkey.

Some are hoping for direct intervention by Ankara, as happened earlier this week, following the killing of eight Turkish soldiers in Syrian shelling of an observation post in southern Idlib.

Ankara responded by launching air strikes on regime positions, "neutralising" scores of regime soldiers,but it did not however halt their advance in Idlib.

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have demanded the regime halt their advance and have held talks with Russia over the crisis.

With the regime set to control the M4 motorway, there are hopes the assault could be put on hold for now due to pressure from Ankara.

If it doesn't, then Turkey will face probably the worst humanitarian situation in the nine-year war with millions attempting to cross the border to avoid the regime advance.

There are many indications that the regime would be utterly merciless in dealing with civilians who stay behind. This week saw dead bodies unearthed and cemeteries desecrated by regime fighters in southern Idlib.

One mentally ill 70-year-old man who stayed behind in Maarat Al-Numan was murdered and his body set on fire when regime soldiers entered the town.

"Humanitarian workers are warning of a catastrophic scenario, but it can be stopped. The civilians of Idlib are desperate for news of what the international community will do to protect civilians and get humanitarian assistance into Idlib," Almosa said.

Assad is is slowly realising his pledge to re-capture every inch of Syria, but is left with more land utterly devastated and empty of its people.

Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin