Syrian families flee bombardment on Idlib, the country's last rebel-held province, toward the border with Turkey. Photo: AFP/Muhammad Haj Kadour
Syrian families flee bombardment on Idlib, the country's last rebel-held province, toward the border with Turkey. Photo: AFP/Muhammad Haj Kadour

Fresh Russian bombardments in northwestern Syria have sent tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes in recent days, prompting a Turkish outcry over an anticipated assault and an inevitable new wave of refugees on its border.

UN regional coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis on Tuesday voiced concern over an uptick in air strikes and shelling that has sent more than 30,000 people fleeing, mainly to locations within the contested province of Idlib. He said strikes on multiple healthcare facilities have compounded the crisis.

“Our fear as humanitarians is the worst may be ahead of us. The safety and protection of some 2.9 million civilians residing in Idlib and surrounding areas is at risk,” said Moumtzis.

Roughly half of Idlib’s population are people who have already been displaced from other parts of the country or the province.

“Idlib is the last exit before the toll,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, warning an assault for the neighboring province would have disastrous consequences.

He called instead for an “international counterterrorism operation” in cooperation with Turkish-backed opposition factions to weed out groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that have been blacklisted by the international community.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff over the weekend raised the prospect of American counterterrorism operations in Idlib, though with the caveat he was “not talking about cooperating, but about using US capabilities to spot the terrorists … and take them out.”

Erdogan did not directly warn of a new wave of refugees to Europe in his op-ed, but the prospect is a common theme in the state-dominated press. In recent days, Turkey’s Daily Sabah published an infographic mapping “possible routes out of Idlib to Europe.”

Camps on the border

On the ground in Idlib, Aleppo Media Center photographer Zein al-Rifai has been documenting new arrivals to northern border camps.

“As the Russian strikes have intensified over the past 10 days, there’s been a major displacement from southern Idlib and northern Hama (province) toward the Syrian-Turkish border. The numbers of IDPs aren’t clear, but the influx of people is continuing with the bombing,” he told Asia Times.

Only a “limited number” of people have sought shelter in Turkish-held areas in neighboring Aleppo province, which Ankara has touted as bastions of stability.

The Turkish border has meanwhile been closed since late 2015.

“Getting smuggled across is almost impossible, and there have been several cases of displaced people being shot dead while trying to enter Turkey illegally,” Rifai said.

Ankara is seeking to avoid a repeat of 2014, when it was forced to allow in tens of thousands of desperate refugees who massed against its border fence after fleeing Islamic State advances.

Astana unravels

For Ankara, Idlib was meant to remain a de-escalation zone – agreed with its Astana partners Iran and Russia nearly one year ago and guaranteed by 12 Turkish military observation points.

But last week’s Tehran summit between the Astana partners failed to preserve the status quo, with Russian President Vladimir Putin insisting his allies in Damascus had the right to retake their national territory.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose forces and proxies have remained on the sidelines in Idlib to avoid alienating Turkey, nonetheless acquiesced to Russia, saying that countering terrorism in the province was “unavoidable.”

Turkish columnist and Middle East expert Cengiz Candar suggests in Al-Monitor that Erdogan may be out of options to prevent the unavoidable.

“Perhaps Putin has come to the conclusion that the gap between Turkey and the West has reached an unbridgeable distance, and that he can disregard Ankara’s wishes regarding Idlib because he sees that Turkey has nowhere to go in addition to being ever-more dependent on Russia and Iran for energy,” he said.

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