Idlib residents plan to defy Syria-Turkey border closure

Trapped civilians who fled Syrian regime attacks say they are left with little choice

Syrians who fled shelling by regime forces and their allies in the Jihadist-held Idlib province, rest in an olive grove where displaced families took refuge, near the village of Aqrabat, in the Harem district of the same province on the border with Turkey on May 31, 2019.    / AFP / Nazeer Al-khatib
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Displaced civilians massed on Syria's closed border with Turkey say they will try to cross over by any means possible if the Russian-backed government onslaught on Idlib does not end.

More than a month of bombardment and air strikes in Syria's last rebel-held province has killed more than 285 civilians and forced 300,000 to flee their homes, monitoring groups say.

“I do not want to leave my country but what options do I have now? Where do I go?” asked Salem Alawan, 39, a father of four in Al Balot camp near the Atmeh border crossing.

Mr Alawan's family fled Kfar Nabudah, one of the most fiercely contested areas since the government and its ally Russia launched their attacks in Idlib in late April.

The village has changed hands several times amid heavy fighting and bombardment.

“I have always lived there, under bombs and even chemical weapons attacks, but now my house was destroyed last month in an air strike," Mr Alawan said. "Thankfully we are all fine, but destitute.”

The number of people seeking refuge along the border has far outstripped efforts by international aid agencies to provide them shelter, food and water.

Activists last week launched a campaign of daily protests at the border to demand that Turkey open its gates, or for a halt to the government onslaught.

But Turkey already hosts more than three million Syrian refugees and is reluctant to let in more.

Experts say this the main reason that Turkey, as a backer of many of the rebel groups in Idlib, worked with Russia to broker a ceasefire in the province last September.

Mr Alawan said his family would take part in the protests, called "Millions Break the Turkish Border", but if the attacks continued and the border remained shut they would try to cross anyway.

"Anyone trying to escape is being kicked by the border police or shot at," he said. "It is dangerous and risky, but we are desperate and might take this step regardless of the consequences.”

Aslan Suleiman will also take part in the border protests but does not hold out much hope.

"I don’t expect positive results but I will try to put pressure on the international actors to stop this bloodshed,” said Mr Suleiman, 27, a former resident of Khan Sheikhoun who left the town three weeks ago with his parents and three sisters.

“Since I left my home, I’ve been trying to go somewhere without fear for our lives and loved ones.

"Bombs can be heard here and warplanes fly over. We fear that these camps will eventually be attacked. It has happened before.

"I will not keep waiting if the authorities don't allow us to cross. We will try to find a smuggler to take us to Turkey.

"From there we can go to Greece, then to Germany or France maybe. We'll see where our future could be. It is not in Syria, for sure.

"I know dozens of families who have already taken off to Turkey. It is just a matter of time until I take my family.”

Turkey and Russia have said they want a return to the truce in Idlib but say each other is responsible for achieving this.

Meanwhile, the US said it would increase pressure on President Bashar Al Assad if the Idlib assault continued and was working with Russia to end Syria's eight-year civil war.

But Mr Suleiman finds it hard to believe these countries will find a solution.

“I have lost hope with the international community who promised us a buffer zone and peaceful life after long years of war," he said.

"It is all papers and fancy conferences. Nothing is being done to stop the Syrian onslaught.

“This is why we are leaving. If they still wonder why, it is because they failed to agree and now we are paying the price."