JERUSALEM, Israel – Nearly 1 million Syrian civilians are fleeing for their lives, caught in the middle of a bloody conflict between the Syrian forces of Bashar Assad – backed by Russia and pro-Iranian militias – and rebel jihadist groups backed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib.
This is the single largest wave of displaced people since Syria’s civil war began 9 years ago.
AP: Photo: Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.
Like many other civilians, Abu Mahmoud has nowhere to flee except the Turkish border where president Erdogan has given orders not to let any refugees cross.
"Some of us live in the mosque, some of us live in our cars. We sleep in our car to secure it. There are no places to even put a tent. If you want to put up a tent at someone's, they want rent on the land. And if we had the money we wouldn't be in this state,” he told AP.
The United Nations is sounding the alarm on what many are calling the biggest humanitarian disaster.
"We remain very alarmed about the safety and protection of over 3,000,000 civilians in Idlib and its surrounding areas in the north-western part of Syria, as reports of airstrikes and shelling continue to take a heavy toll on the civilian population,” said Stephane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General.
The fighting has caused a severe humanitarian crisis. Three million civilians have very little food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education.
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) February 21, 2020
“We are burning through our supplies much faster than anticipated. We just do not know how long this will continue, how many more people will need help and for how long, a level of emergency that is impossible to comprehend,” Mercy Corps country director Kieren Barnes told AP.
Parents find ways to cope with their children. Abdullah Mohammad taught his 3-year old daughter Salwa to laugh when they hear airstrike explosions. He told the Wall Street Journal, “Of course it’s not something that’s funny at all. It’s horrible. Maybe the bomb will fall on top of us. But at least we’ll die while laughing.”
Other children have frozen to death in the winter cold, including a seven-month-old baby boy and a one-year-old girl, the BBC reports.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Syria are racing quickly towards a full-scale conflict.
The Battle Behind the Crisis
Idlib, which is currently held by rebel forces, is one of the last pieces of territory Assad seeks to conquer in his quest to take over the whole of Syria. OIR Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III said Idlib “seems to be a magnet for terrorist groups” all of which are a "nuisance, a menace and a threat" to the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria, who are just "trying to make it through the winter."
Syrians for Truth and Justice reports that Islamist rebel groups have taken at least 550 Christian homes and businesses belonging to Christians in Idlib since last 2018, and used them for their forces.
Assad’s military is advancing on Idlib with the promise that all forces opposing his regime will be slaughtered. Assad considers anyone who resists his leadership as a terrorist.
“The battle for liberating all Syrian soil, crushing terrorism, and achieving stability will also continue,” Assad said according to Syrian state media.
Turkey, partnered with Islamist jihadist forces such as al Qaeda, is threatening to launch a full-scale operation in Idlib if Assad’s forces do not retreat. Erdogan is trying to prevent a sudden influx of 900,000 Syrian refugees into his country. He says he cannot keep those refugees from flooding into Europe.
So far, Turkey has sent more than 10,000 troops with artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles into Idlib, Turkish media reports.
At least 15 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria this month amid a crushing offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces aimed at recapturing remaining opposition-held areas in the region.
Tensions are especially high after two Turkish soldiers were killed on Thursday in an airstrike. Erdogan vowed Feb. 12 to take military action “everywhere in Syria” if another Turkish soldier was killed or injured.
Turkey Appeals to the US
Various sources report Turkey has provided some of these al Qaeda groups with US-supplied weapons. Turkey, a NATO member, has also asked the US to supply Patriot missile batteries to protect these retreating forces.
The US is aware of a request for Patriot systems but “no decision has been made,” a US official said speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some argue that would put the US in the role of covering an operation that supports al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the UN is working to assist the nearly 1 million civilians trapped in between Turkey and Syria’s firefight.
“A total of 1,227 trucks of humanitarian assistance crossed from Turkey through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam cross-border checks last month compared to 928 trucks in December,” Dujarric said. “This is the largest amount of aid the United Nations has sent across the Syrian-Turkish border in (any month) since the operation was authorized in 2014.”