Serial displacement in north Aleppo as fighting rages, border closed

AMMAN: More than 100,000 displaced Syrians are now trapped without access to aid in a rebel-controlled, north Aleppo pocket along the closed Turkish border after simultaneous Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Islamic State offensives uprooted 30,000 already displaced civilians last week.

Organized and ad hoc encampments along the border are filled to capacity, forcing the newly arrived to sleep out in the open since “all the schools and abandoned buildings are filled with people spread out among the trees and in gardens,” Alaa Abu Umr, a member of the opposition Azaz Media Office, told Syria Direct. Abu Umr said he visited some of the most recently displaced Syrians who fled an IS incursion into their camp late last week.

Displaced Syrians have flocked to rebel-controlled north Aleppo because the Turkish government has intermittently allowed displaced Syrians to seek refuge across the border. But Ankara closed the north Aleppo pocket’s border crossing of Bab a-Salama more than a year ago, while the number of people hoping to cross has only grown.

The scattered and chaotic nature of the new displacement makes delivering aid nearly impossible since people “have spread out to the point that humanitarian organizations don’t even know where they are and are unable to reach them,” said Abu Umr.

“There are tons of ad hoc encampments and no one is giving them a thing.”

The northern part of the rebel-controlled Aleppo enclave runs approximately 24km east to west along the Turkish-Syrian border and its southern tip ends around 30km north of Aleppo city. It is an area dominated by the FSA and Islamist brigades for the past two years.

This past February, regime forces north of Aleppo broke through a nearly four-year rebel encirclement of two Shite-majority villages in northwestern Aleppo province. The lighting regime advance effectively cut off rebels in northern Aleppo along the Turkish border from their counterparts in and around Aleppo city, southern Aleppo and Idlib.

With the rebel pocket isolated, SDF and IS forces have been slowly encroaching from the east and west.

Caught in a vise

On the east side of the pocket, the Islamic State captured three displaced persons’ camps as part of their advance last week, causing more than 30,000 Syrians to abandon their tents and flee farther north and east over a period of just 48 hours, according to a Human Rights Watch report published Thursday. Rebels took back the same territory late last week, but fighting continues as of publication and the civilians are still gone. 

The Islamic State bombed one of the three camps, Iqdah, on Thursday, which started a fire that burned down dozens of tents, reported Al-Jazeera over the weekend. IS fighters then entered the camp and opened fire, injuring several residents and prompting hundreds of families to pick up and flee northwest towards the border.

The camp residents, already displaced, are now displaced yet again. One resident of a north Aleppo provincial town, Muhammad, fled Tel Rifaat with his family several months ago after a regime airstrike destroyed their home. They landed around 20km northwest, at the Iqdah camp for thousands of displaced Syrians less than two kilometers from the Turkish-Aleppo border.

Muhammed talked to Abu Umr during the latter’s visit to north Aleppo where many of Iqdah’s displaced are now living in open fields. Abu Umr relayed Muhammad’s story to Syria Direct.

“We awoke to the sound of an IS car bomb exploding near the camp,” Muhammad said. “Then our tent flew apart after they bombarded our shelters. Moments after that, we found IS inside the camp, shooting at us and trying to empty it.”

On the west side of the north Aleppo rebel pocket, the YPG-majority SDF has been attacking since early February in order to gain more territory.

Despite early advances, SDF forces have since stalled but continue to skirmish and bombard rebel positions inside this rebel pocket.

“Everywhere now is dangerous,” said Abu Umr.

 Remains of Iqdah camp after last Thursday's attack. Photo courtesy of Azaz Media Office. Photo courtesy of Azaz Media Office.

No farther north to go

With two separate forces advancing from either side and relief agencies overwhelmed by the scale and fluid nature of the displacement, the only option left for some is to try and sneak across the highly militarized border into Turkey.

“The border is closed in our faces and we will die at the hands of a sniper if we try and smuggle our way in,” Umm Mahmoud, who fled her home in the southern Aleppo countryside seven months ago for Iqdah, told Abu Umr.

Ankara has completed “nearly one-third” of a 911km-long security wall along its border with Syria, reported Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency earlier this month.

When completed, the “rocket-resistant concrete wall” will be two meters wide and three meters high and buttressed with razor wire, surveillance cameras and spotlights. Patrol points will be established every 50 meters and security forces will be stationed there to provide 24-hour surveillance.

Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on Turkey to “stop shooting at Syrian civilians fleeing fighting and immediately allow them to cross the Turkish border” in a report on the humanitarian crisis in rebel-held north Aleppo.

“The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall,” Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the report.

“Where are we supposed to go now? These are the words everyone has repeated without knowing the answer yet again,” two-time displaced civilian Muhammad asked Abu Umr.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award.

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.