‘The regime is approaching’: Fear along border as north Latakia civilians run out of options

AMMAN: In the wake of recent regime advances in northern Latakia, tens of thousands of internally displaced Syrians in both ad hoc encampments and official camps along the Turkish-Latakia border say they fear “revenge” and have fled as far north as they can, with nowhere left to go.

Earlier this month, the Syrian army began a campaign to isolate rebel-held Idlib province from the adjacent rebel-held areas of Jabal al-Akrad and Jabel Turkman to the southwest (in what is north Latakia province). Regime forces captured the mountain town of Salma on January 12, formerly a gateway into north Latakia’s rebel-controlled Jabal al-Akrad.

Now, civilians concentrated on the Latakia-Turkish border have no farther north to go. “We expect anything from this regime as it approaches by land,” Umr, a former resident in Jabel Turkman now living in a north Latakia camp, told Syria Direct.

Displaced Syrians tell Syria Direct from north Latakia they are so afraid of the regime advance that they are choosing to return to their home province of Idlib, also undergoing heavy regime and Russian bombardment, rather than confront approaching army forces, a member of the opposition’s north Latakia local council told Syria Direct.

Hundreds of the displaced civilians originally from Jisr a-Shughour in Idlib and the surrounding countryside “have already started returning to their homes despite the bombings there,” said Fadi Ibrahim of the local council.The rural north Latakia council oversees the camps for internally displaced Syrians with the help of local and international aid organizations.

“As long as the bombing of our tents continues, there are those among us who would prefer to die in our homes and villages [in Idlib] instead,” one camp resident who wished to remain anonymous told Syria Direct.

Dozens of families in a collection of camps along the border with Turkey packed their bags Tuesday and began the journey home to Idlib province as regime forces came within 10km south of the town of al-Yamadiya, Ali Adra, an activist in the northern Latakia countryside who witnessed the exodus, told Syria Direct.

The displaced civilians were “fearful of the regime closing in alongside Russian bombardment, in which they have become live targets following the regime’s capture of wide swaths of territory in Jabel Turkman,” Adra said.

This past weekend, regime forces backed by “unprecedented Russian airstrikes” captured the last rebel stronghold of Jabel Turkman in northern Latakia, the director of the majority-Turkman, Free Syrian Army affiliated Second Army of the Coast’s media office told Syria Direct earlier this week.

Maps courtesy of Agathocle de Syracuse

For those fleeing the advance, the Syrian side of the Turkish border is as far as they can go. The border with Turkey in this area is no longer open, and anyone willing to cross must produce valid and current passports and identification.

Nearly six years into this war, documentation has expired, been destroyed or gotten lost. For young children, they were likely born with no birth certificates or any formal recognition that they exist. All of which begs the question posed by Abu Ahmed, who fled to the Turkish border from his home in Jabal al-Akrad after Russian airstrikes intensified and regime forces captured Salma. “Where do we go now?”

“Our children left school, there is no firewood or water, we are dying from the cold, and now we have become a target of the bombing since the regime is approaching,” said Abu Ahmad, who, along with his family slept in sewage pipes for the first two days after fleeing their mountain village.

“From the beginning, the regime has been taking revenge on civilians,” said Umr, the resident from Jabal Turkman now living in a north Latakia camp.

“I believe that if the rest of the areas in Jabel Turkman fall, then the regime will storm the camps and take revenge,” said Umr, citing the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and cluster munitions against civilian targets.

One mother and widow named Umm Ahmad, now in a tent on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, agreed, adding that life back in Idlib isn’t any better.

Originally from the Idlib countryside, she, her husband and three children fled to a northern Latakia camp to escape “the barbaric barrel bombs that the regime was tossing on our heads.”

After her husband was killed in an airstrike and shrapnel almost hit one of her children while he was out buying bread, she returned to Idlib. “But the situation there was also horrific because of bombardment,” said Umm Ahmad.

[Read more of her story here.]

She brought her children back to Jabel Turkman with the hopes of fleeing to Turkey. But without the proper documents, this seems impossible unless she pays smugglers, said Umm Ahmad.

For now, she says, she will stay in the camp.

“People here in the camps are more afraid of the regime forces’ revenge than they are of the bombings,” Umm Ahmad says.

“We are all terrorists in the eyes of the regime.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.