Amidst north Aleppo chaos, thousands of displaced Syrians pour into ‘relative safety’ of Kurdish-held Afrin

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians displaced by a major ongoing regime offensive in the northern Aleppo countryside are seeking refuge in Afrin, a pocket of Kurdish-held territory in the province’s northwest perceived as “comparatively more secure and stable,” an Afrin activist told Syria Direct Thursday.

Nestled in the northwest corner of Aleppo province, Afrin is the westernmost of the four cantons making up Rojava, a swathe of Kurdish territories in northern Syria held and primarily administrated the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

“Displaced people started to pour in around a week ago,” Sheikhmous al-Afrini, a Kurdish aid activist in Afrin told Syria Direct on Thursday.

In images posted by local news page Efrin Anha on social media Wednesday, displaced north Aleppo residents sit surrounded by carpets, mattresses and plastic bags holding the possessions they were able to bring with them.

Displaced north Aleppo residents in Afrin on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Efrin Anha.

Russia has reportedly launched hundreds of air raids using cluster munitions and vacuum missiles in recent days on the north Aleppo countryside to support regime forces operating on the ground, pro-opposition Shaam News Network reported on Tuesday. The bombings are “like rain,” Smart News correspondent Muhammad Najm a-Din told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Those fleeing aerial and ground attacks have few options left after regime forces on Wednesday successfully broke a nearly four-year rebel siege of the pro-regime towns of Nubl and Zahraa in northwest Aleppo. By doing so, they severed rebel supply lines into Aleppo city as well as the supply of oil from Islamic State-held territories in eastern Aleppo to rebel-held Idlib province, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.

Regime operations in the Aleppo countryside have displaced “around 40,000 people,” London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat tweeted on Thursday.

Fleeing civilians must now make a choice: head west to Kurdish-held Afrin or further north to the rebel-held Turkish border crossing in the hopes that Turkish authorities might let them through.

“Afrin is not bombarded by Russian, Syrian or [US-led international] coalition planes,” Hussein al-Halabi, a north Aleppo media activist told Syria Direct on Thursday. “It is relatively safe compared to what the rest of the opposition areas are subjected to.”

The General Command of the YPG, the PYD’s military wing, has established a special operations room “to receive the displaced and give them aid,” Afrin activist Razizan Hadou told Kurdish ARA News on Wednesday. The move came after “tens of thousands” of internally displaced Syrians arrived in Afrin from the nearby Aleppo countryside in under 24 hours, Hadou said.

“In the absence of international aid organizations in Afrin, we are working to support the displaced,” said aid activist al-Afrini. Kurdish authorities and volunteers are providing transportation, blankets and medication to those who arrive, as well as “providing them with shelter in schools and setting up tents,” he said.

 North Aleppo residents seeking refuge in Afrin. Photo courtesy of Efrin Anha.

“We’ll provide assistance according to our capabilities, but it isn’t enough,” Arifa Bakr, an official with the PYD-led self-administration governing Afrin told Kurdish Hawar News on Wednesday. “We are calling on human rights agencies to provide assistance.”

Thousands of other Syrians are heading to camps near the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey north of Azaz in Aleppo province, the activist al-Halabi, who is at the border, told Syria Direct.

Bab al-Salama has been closed to all traffic except for some aid and medical vehicles for more than 10 months. “We call on the Turkish government to lighten the pressure on the Syrian side” by letting displaced civilians through, Abu Abdo, Director of Passports and Migration on the rebel-held Aleppo side of the border told Halab Today in a video posted online Thursday.

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.