Desperate Idlib residents launch protests on Syria-Turkey border

Let us through or stop the bombing,

A boy holds the Free Syrian army flag during a protest calling for an end to the strikes and for Ankara to open the frontier at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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Thousands of Syrian civilians who fled a Russian-backed government offensive in rebel-held Idlib province have launched a protest campaign to demand an end to the attacks or the opening of the Turkish border to allow them to escape.

The "Millions Break the Turkish Border" protests began near the Atmeh crossing on Friday as desperation grows after more than a month of fighting and regime bombardment that has driven 300,000 people towards the border.

A protest organiser said the demonstrations would be staged daily until the end of Ramadan, after which "there will be more actions and people coming to take part". About 500 people took part in Friday's demonstration.

"In the coming days, we will increase our activities if we don't see action on the ground and the attacks stopped," Ahmad Al Tayb told The National. "We will not stop – this is only the beginning for the large march we are planning if the world does not act."

Syrian NGOs said on Friday that the recent bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces had caused "the single largest mass displacement in Syria" since the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began in 2011.

"The latest offensive began in March and has amplified since April 26, turning into a daily massacre," Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets civil defence volunteer group, said at a press conference in Istanbul.

FILE - In this May 3, 2019 file photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows smoke rising after Syrian government and Russian airstrikes that hit the town of al-Habeet, southern Idlib, Syria. The violence raging once again in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held bastion, is putting Turkish-Russian relations to the test. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
Smoke rises from Al Habeet in Idlib governorat after Syrian and Russian air strikes on the opposition-held Syrian town May 3, 2019. AP

The new arrivals have overwhelmed facilities set up to help those who fled to the relatively safer border region before Russia and Turkey brokered a truce for Idlib in September last year. More than two-thirds of those displaced are living without shelter, with border camps already running at double capacity, the NGOs said.

Abou Al Nour, an official at the Atmeh camp, said more than 20,000 families were sleeping in an olive grove. "They don't have any shelter or water, and this is beyond our abilities. We are doing all we can," he told Reuters.

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House, said the aim of the "Break the Border" protest campaign was not to cross illegally into Turkey but to "highlight civilian suffering in the north-west and their need for protection and safe refuge".

"Likewise, marching to the borders in big numbers aims to pressure western countries and Turkey to live up to their responsibility and pressure Russia to stop the military campaign and the systematic targeting of civilians," Mr Haid told The National.

He said Turkey would probably keep its border closed to prevent the large influx of Syrian refugees seen in the early years of the civil war, many of whom travelled on to Europe.

"The European Union and Turkey are trying to avoid major waves of Syrians by increasing their political pressure on Russia to cease the ongoing offensives. Similarly, they will likely increase their aid support to the IDPs and vulnerable communities inside Syria to alleviate their suffering and decrease their desperation to leave," Mr Haid said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Thursday that he wanted a ceasefire in Idlib to prevent more civilian deaths and a refugee influx to Turkey.

On Friday, Russia said the responsibility for a ceasefire rested with Turkey, which supports some of the Syrian rebel groups in Idlib.

"We really do need a ceasefire in Idlib and what needs to be achieved is for the terrorists to stop firing on civilian targets and on certain facilities where our troops are located," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, using the Syrian regime's term for rebel fighters. "This is the responsibility of the Turkish side."