Tens of thousands flee IS-held al-Bab amidst intense bombardment and ground fighting

Since the beginning of 2017, some 30,000 people have risked snipers, landmines and airstrikes to escape the fight for al-Bab, the Islamic State’s (IS) last stronghold in Aleppo province.

Al-Bab city, 30km south of Turkey’s southern border with Syria, is the Islamic State’s only remaining stronghold in northwest Syria. 

In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, an offensive aimed at expelling IS forces from Syrian territory along its southern border and fought by Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters. After a series of early victories, the operation, which involves Turkish special forces and airpower, has bogged down in fighting near al-Bab since November.

In mid-January, the regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) joined the race to al-Bab in earnest, and has since advanced to a village roughly seven kilometers south of the city.

 Displaced residents of villages east of IS-held al-Bab city on February 4. Photo courtesy of al-Bab Coordination Committee.

The fighting around al-Bab is some of the most complex anywhere in Syria. In addition to ongoing offensives by Turkish-backed troops and the regime army, airstrikes by Russia, Turkey and the US-led Coalition have pounded the city.

“When we left al-Bab, it was in ruins,” one recently-displaced resident, Bakri, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Bakri, a young man, left the city on January alongside his family of 12. They made it to a village near the frontline between IS and the Turkish-backed FSA forces northwest of al-Bab. Then, at two o’clock in the morning, Bakri and his family made their move to escape on foot through pitch-black orchards.

“IS snipers picked up on our movements and began firing at us, so we scattered,” Bakri told Syria Direct. Half of them, including Bakri, made it out. The rest followed this past Thursday.

Bakri and his family are among an estimated 30,000 civilians that have fled al-Bab city and the surrounding countryside since late December, according to United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric. 

Khalil Abdelrahman, an official with the al-Bab Local Council based in the opposition-held north Aleppo city of Azaz, cites a similar figure. He estimates that “approximately 10,000 families” have fled al-Bab since late December. The local council is responsible for caring for the displaced, and coordinates with relief organizations to distribute aid.

 The rubble of al-Bab’s Corniche street. Photo courtesy of al-Bab Coordination Committee.

“People wait for the planes to come and IS personnel to hide, and that’s when they run,” Abdelrahman told Syria Direct on Sunday. “That’s their best chance.” Bakri gave a similar account.

Even so, landmines, IEDs and IS snipers reportedly killed dozens of people who were trying to escape in January alone.

Inside al-Bab, “IS has executed many people for smuggling others out,” Bakri told Syria Direct.

Once they do make it out, residents of al-Bab face suspicion from local rebel authorities, and are subject to intense security checks. “If we suspect anybody [of ties to IS], we inform the relevant authorities,” said council member Abdelrahman.

Most people who have left al-Bab are currently living scattered throughout villages in the opposition-held north Aleppo countryside, local council member Abdelrahman told Syria Direct.

Not everyone who escaped left everything behind.  “Even now, I don’t believe that I’m finished with IS,” Bakri told Syria Direct. “I still have nightmares that they are executing me for something.”

“We have tasted all kinds of oppression and torture.”

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.

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.