This article was originally published by Syria Deeply.
By Saleem al-Omar and Dylan Collins
As the Syrian government, with the help of allied militias and Russian air power, steadily encircles the city of Aleppo, it is also reportedly working on clearing large areas of Latakia and Idlib in Syria’s north, sending some 50,000 residents fleeing toward the Turkish border.
Turkish authorities have distributed tents to thousands of displaced people in rural Aleppo near the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, where more than 35,000 displaced residents have gathered over the past week, fleeing a sharp increase in Russian air raids, according to a spokesman from the Turkish relief organization International Humanitarian Relief (IHH).
There are now approximately 18 displacement camps set up inside Syria along the Turkish border, according to IHH spokesman Mustafa Özbek. The IHH are the only Turkish organization providing aid within Syria.
With another 20,000 residents now sitting along the border in northern Idlib, Turkey may very well be facing the largest wave of migration from Syria since the civil war began.
“Thousands of people have arrived in a very short time, but we’ve managed to provide them all with shelter,” said Özbek.
Since the beginning of the government’s northern offensive last week, the Turkish government has focused on providing aid, including food and shelter, to displaced civilians along the Syrian side of its border.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday that Turkey had let in 10,000 people from the latest wave of displacement, but it was not immediately clear what area on the border he was referring to.
Russian and Syrian government air raids have not just been focused on Aleppo. According to local activists, air strikes in northern Latakia have continued unabated since last month’s government takeover of Rabia, the most prominent opposition stronghold in Latakia’s Turkmen mountains.
According to Muhammad al-Shiekh, a 25-year-old Turkmen media activist, Russian aircrafts have been running bombing raids across the area for weeks, often coming dangerously close to the Turkish border.
“The regime wants to control the area in order to displace the Turkmen people. It is a clear attempt to provoke the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey,” al-Sheikh said.
“This area used to be full of people, but almost everyone has left. Only a few families remain now. Those who refused to flee to Turkey are waiting for their fate here,” he added.
In late January, Assad loyalists retook control of some 35 rebel-villages in northern Latakia, pushing rebel forces in the area back to just a few miles from the Turkish border.
Pro-government forces have also gained control of large areas of a key road connecting Aleppo and Latakia, extending all the way to Bashoura. If rebel groups lose Bashoura, the Syrian government and its allies would be given easy access to the city of Jisr al-Shughour, under opposition control since May 2015.
Government troops are also now less than a mile away from the Turkmen second division in the village of Kelez, which in turn is only five miles away from the Turkish border.
The government’s artillery has pounded Kelez, as well as informal shelters in the area along the Turkish border, including those at the Yamdiya border crossing. Those who are still in the camps anxiously watch the skies. Abu Omar, a 56-year-old man, is one of those still living in the camps. “Every day, I ask myself whether it is my turn, and whether my tent is to be bombed today,” he said. “I migrated from the Kurd Mountain to the Turkmen Mountain, and then to this camp. I want to migrate to the heavens next–at least my soul will be free there.”
The four camps in the area host more than 5,000 people, most of whom fled because their village, Yunisiyya, in Burj al-Qasab, was under constant bombardment.
Government forces are also targeting the road that connects western, rural Idlib with Yamdiya via the coastal areas. Residents there told Syria Deeply that at least three civilians have been killed in air strikes over the past few days.
The Turkmen villages in northern Latakia are now isolated from the rest of the coastal area, and other areas still under opposition control have increasingly limited access to Turkey, and zero access to the rest of Syria. Government attacks have prevented access to the Yamdiyya border crossing into Turkey, forcing civilians to instead head for the closed Khirbet al-Jawz crossing in western, rural Idlib, where thousand have now gathered, waiting for the Turkish authorities to let them through.
And while Turkey have let a limited number of people with pressing health issues across the border, some 20,000 displaced villagers remain on the Syrian side of the border in Idlib, most of them in temporary tents provided by IHH and other relief organizations.
Um Muhammad, a 36-year-old mother from the village of Bdama in rural Idlib, waited with her three children outside the closed Khirbet al-Jawz crossing on Monday. “I fled from Bdama when the Russian aircraft targeted our area, and killed many people. I tried to go to Yamdiya where others from our village went, but the Turks closed the border crossing in our faces. They only care about their own people (referring to the Turkmen), and no one else,” she said.
Abu Jaafar, a 58-year-old man, said he stood in the heavy rains that pounded the border camps over the weekend within sight of the Turkish border patrol, but they refused to let him in, joking that two days of waiting gave him nothing but a bad cold.
A media activist visiting the Khirbet al-Jawz camp told Syria Deeply over the phone that wet weather and poor housing meant that many in the shelters were filled with mud. “I do not know what to say, but may God help them. The kids look like they came straight out of the Middle Ages,” he said.
Most of those stuck at the borders on the Syrian coast and in western, rural Idlib have been forced to move many times. But residents of the camps said the most recent migration was something different.
“Instead of targeting one or two villages,” said one camp resident, who asked to remain anonymous, “this time they’re hitting tens of villages every day. We’ve never seen this many people displaced.”
Saleem al-Omar is a contributor for Syria Deeply. Dylan Collins is the managing editor at Syria Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English]