Between bombs and the border: Escaping Idlib

Between bombs and the border: Escaping Idlib
5 min read
13 May, 2019
Comment: Syrians escaping Assad's bombs in Idlib are facing a perilous border crossing, and anti-Syrian sentiment, writes Khaled Terkawi.
Many of Idlib's estimated four million people are displaced from other areas of Syria [Anadolu]
When it comes to western governments, the suffering of Syrian civilians in Idlib targeted by Russian airstrikes and Assad's artillery is largely being met with indifference or weakly worded statements. 

To a Syrian this is not so much surprising, as it is disheartening. We have experienced this indifference already in Homs, Aleppo and Ghouta. And this time, as tens of thousands are displaced from Idlib towards the Turkish border, the absence of a strong response to Assad's atrocities will have far-reaching political consequences for the West, and particularly the European Union.

The massive displacement from Idlib is coinciding with the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, a country that is already hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

As the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity has repeatedly warned in the past, squeezed between Russian terror, increasingly hostile attitudes in the countries of the region and the absence of minimum conditions for a voluntary, safe and dignified return to Syria, surviving and displaced Syrians are once again looking to risk it all in a bid to make it to Europe.    

On 10 February, clashes broke out between Turks and some Syrians in the Esenyurt area of Istanbul. By the time Turkish security forces intervened, a number of shops owned by Syrians had been attacked and damaged.

This incident occurred amid a notable rise in the hateful discourse targeting Syrians in Turkey. In the aftermath of the recent municipal elections, the first act of newly elected CHP mayor of Bolu was to cancel the aid for the Syrian refugees in his city, and stop issuing new licenses for commercial investments by Syrians, including opening new shops.  

We have experienced this indifference already in Homs, Aleppo and Ghouta

Hostile attitudes towards Syrian refugees were adopted by many of the candidates in the recent municipal election campaigns, reflecting a new trend towards Syrians emerging in some segments of the Turkish society.

At the same time, across the Syrian border, Russia has unleashed a brutal bombardment of towns and villages in Idlib, using a new type of highly-explosive missiles in these areas, destroying buildings and killing people trapped inside them. Russian bombing has spread fear and terror among the population, causing tens of thousands of civilians to head towards the Syrian-Turkish border.

Thousands of families remain there in the open - unable to legally cross into Turkey - sheltering under olive trees and waiting for the bombardment to end.  

In the first three days of the bombardment, the local organisations documented the arrival of 12,257 families to the Syrian-Turkish border. This figure is increasing every day.

The Office of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations estimated the number of people displaced by the new wave of attacks to be more than 150,000 people. The UN confirmed the targeting of hospitals, bakeries and schools, as well as the "Civil Defense" vehicles that were carrying out medical rescue operations.

Trapped at the Syrian-Turkish border, the displaced are continuously looking for ways to enter Turkey via smuggling networks.

So far, more than 3,000 people - according to sources close to the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity (SACD) - have managed to cross the borders this way. It is believed that these numbers will increase with the escalation of bombardment and a potential ground operation in Idlib. But many don't intend to stay in Turkey.

Civil society organisations in Syria estimate that Idlib is home to nearly four million people, most of whom have been displaced from other areas of Syria

With the notable restrictions and delays in issuing temporary protection cards for Syrians, and the rise in hostile rhetoric targeting Syrian refugees, for a considerable number of Syrians entering Turkey these days, as well as some who have been there for a while, the time is right to try and make it to Europe.

But the journey is a dangerous one. On 3 May, the body of a Syrian doctor, named Mahmoud al-Hasan, was found near the coastline of the Turkish city of Bodrum, when a boat carrying him and other Syrians sank as they tried to flee to Europe.

Read more: Rights groups call for action on fate of thousands of missing Syrians

Doctor al-Hasan fled from Daraa to the north of Syria a few months ago, and paid smugglers to enter Turkey. He immediately proceeded to try to reach Europe. The day after he drowned, the Turkish border guards seized two more boats trying to reach Europe from the same place with at least 10 Syrians on board.

Civil society organisations in Syria estimate that Idlib is home to nearly four million people, most of whom have been displaced from other areas of Syria.

They are dispersed in various areas and villages in the province, enduring harsh living conditions and lack basic supplies and resources, yet remain unwilling to return to Assad-held areas fearing persecution, detention and forced conscription.

After eight years of suffering, displaced Syrians don't have much to lose

However, as regime forces launch a full-scale attack on Idlib with the assistance of Russian bombers, they may have no other option than to try to make it to Turkey, and from there to Europe.

With such a large influx, Turkey will find it hard to control refugees' attempts to reach Europe by any means possible, by sea or land.

After eight years of suffering and this latest displacement from Idlib, the lack of any guarantee that they will ever be able to return to Syria without the threat of reprisals from the regime that include detention and forced conscription, displaced Syrians don't have much to lose.

Khaled Terkawi is a Homs coordinator for the Syrian Association for Citizens' Dignity. He is a researcher and author of three books documenting the Syrian revolution. He holds a masters degree in economics from Damascus University and is currently completing his PhD at Istanbul Seher University. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.