AMMAN–Ahmad Ali, 21-years-old, stepped out of his car to fill up his gas tank at a station in Raqqa Province, northeast Syria. As his mother and three young siblings waited inside, Ali contemplated where to look for shelter after bombardment intensified on the city of Tal Abyad following Ankara’s launch of Operation Spring of Peace on Wednesday.

"Now we are at a Salouq lounge south of Tal Abyad and I don’t know where I’m going to go,” he told Syria Direct.  

As Turkey began its third major offensive in three years, targeting Syrian-Kurdish militias, after Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018, Ali and his family found themselves displaced for the second time in the last three years as well. 

Ali fled his original home in Abu al-Hamam area in the eastern countryside of ​​Deir e-Zor province—controlled by Iranian militias fighting alongside Syrian government forces—in 2017. While trying to reach northern Syria, he was arrested by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and placed in al-Sad camp in the southern countryside of Hasakah province. After nine months in detention, he paid a smuggler to sneak him out of the camp and into a neighboring village but was arrested again and sent to Ein Issa Refugee Camp in northern Raqqa province and smuggled out once more. 

Afterwards, he settled in a single-room house with his four family members in Tal Abyad until Thursday morning, when Turkish military and allied Syrian opposition factions launched air strikes and artillery, forcing thousands to escape their respective homes and settlements. 

“Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in a military zone with no safe access,” Ali said.  He has little choice but to monitor the course of the battles before he can decide where he will settle next. 

Imminent humanitarian crisis

Ali is one of an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 who have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the first 24 hours of fighting as a result of Turkey’s latest campaign, according to Qamishli-based researcher at the Rojava Information Center, Thomas Mcclure. 

Most IDPs are from the towns of Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain and al-Derbasiyah, and villages on the border between Syria and Turkey. Since the Turkish campaign began, they have fled in search for shelter in areas under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) control in northeast Syria but outside the range of Turkish shelling, Mcclure said. 

“In particular, Hasakah, or Tal Tamr, a small town in western Hasakah Governorate,” he added. Crowds of IDPs have migrated to Hasakah, where they are taking shelter in schools that have been converted into sanctuaries. The city of Raqqa also received more than 10,000 IDPs from Tal Abyad, according to a member of the media office of the Raqqa Civil Council.

At the same time, the General Directorate of Drinking Water in Hasakah announced the discontinuation of the only water station as Turkish bombardment targeted the Alouk drinking water plant in Sri Kaneh (Ras al-Ain).

According to a statement issued by the directorate, the station was targeted with 10 shells, 3 of which fell in the pumping hall and hit the power supply lines. 

Other IDPs may have fled to government-held areas, and a relatively large number of people arrived at the Semalka border crossing—established between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and the AA—on Wednesday night and attempted to cross but weren’t successful; it was closed.

Effi, a 23-year-old university student from Qamishli, was among them. After Turkey announced its operation, she and her family fled to the Semalka border crossing. She felt that she could be safe and stable enough to continue her university studies with her family by her side in Erbil, northern Iraq. Although the border crossing was closed Wednesday night, she said, on Thursday morning the border opened for a short time, allowing Syrians who were lined up through the night to enter. 

Humanitarian relief 

 As the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria began, a number of humanitarian aid organizations issued reports and statements about the looming humanitarian threat in Northeast Syria. 

International organizations repeatedly warned that any military operation would seriously endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the east of the Euphrates. 

On October 8, Save the Children said “there are 1.65 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in this area, including more than 650,000 displaced by war. All essential services including food, water, shelter, health, education, and protection must be consistently provided to all civilians, or we could see another humanitarian disaster unfold before our eyes.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) also published a report stating a military offensive could displace 300,000 people and sever life-saving humanitarian services. 

“The IRC is deeply concerned about the impact of this escalation on civilians… the destabilizing effect this will have on a population that has already borne the brunt of the eight-year-long conflict in Syria,” Misty Buswell, Middle East Policy Director at the IRC said in an IRC report. “Many of these people have already been displaced multiple times and suffered horribly under the brutal rule of ISIS, only to be facing yet another crisis.” 

According to Mcclure, it’s difficult for humanitarian organizations to access Northeast Syria for a number of reasons. All formal aid is coordinated through the Syrian government and non-government organizations cannot work directly with the AA because it was never granted recognition on the international stage, he said. 

“And it’s made harder by the Turkish attacks. The AA will have to deal with the people as best they can in the middle of war,” Mcclure said. “It’s very difficult for NGOs to work when Turkey conducts the war that it conducts.”