Syrians brave Turkish gunfire, rugged backroads to escape looming Idlib battle

Turkish-backed rebels near the border wall in Idlib province, October 2017. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

AMMAN: The shouts of a Turkish soldier broke the silence as Suleiman Ibrahim* and his companions huddled behind a row of trees along the border wall that marks the end of Syrian territory.

Then the gunshots started.

It was the fourth time that Ibrahim had attempted the risky crossing into Turkey since arriving to the rebel-held, northwestern Idlib province on the Syrian government’s evacuation buses less than a month ago.

A journalist originally from Daraa province, Ibrahim was one of dozens of other media workers left stranded in his southern hometown after pro-government forces retook it from rebels in July. There, he and others lived in fear of Assad’s security forces with the encroaching return of government rule.

Now in Idlib, where the Syrian government and its allies are gearing up for what many believe could be a devastating last-stand offensive against rebel groups, Ibrahim is desperate to avoid going through what happened to him in Daraa again—this time, with nowhere else in Syria he can flee to. Every week since arriving in the northwestern province, he’s forked out hundreds of dollars in cash to people smugglers in the hopes of making the irregular crossing into Turkey.

Ibrahim is among growing numbers of Syrians—many of them previously displaced from around the country—now attempting to flee Idlib province for Turkey by any means possible as the Syrian government and its allies prepare for a burgeoning military campaign in the northwest. The route includes hours of walking through rugged terrain guided by exploitative smugglers, before running the risk of shootings by Turkish soldiers along the border who are known to fire on oncoming Syrian refugees—sometimes killing them.

But with Idlib now almost completely surrounded by encroaching pro-government forces, the Turkish border is the only route out for many Syrians in the rebel-held pocket.

For Ibrahim, finding passage to safety has been a desperate struggle. By late August, three weeks after first leaving Daraa, he had already tried—and failed—three times to cross the border. He had crawled for hours on his hands and knees through thickets of cotton, climbed over barbed wire fencing in the pitch-black dark and waded neck-deep through river water. Each time, Turkish border guards eventually found Ibrahim, his smuggling “guide” and travel companions before detaining them and sending them back over the border into Syria.

Even then, the fourth attempt would turn out to be the worst.

The group hadn’t yet made it across the border wall last week when Ibrahim heard the Turkish soldier shouting through the darkness. The soldier shone a bright light on the group, revealing their hiding places just meters from the wall, on the Syrian side. He began to shoot.

Ibrahim heard a bullet dart inches from his body, and for a moment, he was certain he’d been hit. “There was a hot feeling in my shoulder,” he tells Syria Direct, although when when he looked down, he couldn’t find a wound.

Instead, his friend and travel companion, who had been crouching next to him, was gushing blood from his shoulder.

Though the man survived, Ibrahim and the others in the group spent an hour giving him whatever first aid they could, “while the soldier shot at our route,” he says.

They eventually had little choice but to hitchhike back toward Idlib in search of a hospital, and abandon the crossing yet again.

Risk of ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Idlib

At least six people were shot and killed while crossing into Turkey during August, according to a Syria-based human rights researcher who requested anonymity as they were not yet authorized to release the data to the press.

Rights groups have long documented abuses by Turkish border soldiers tasked with preventing refugees from entering the country. A damning report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February documented the deaths of 10 people as they attempted to cross into Turkey from Idlib during the second half of 2017.  

Incidents of shooting by Turkish soldiers along the border included warning shots as well as deliberate targeting of groups of asylum seekers including children, HRW found. In some cases, people who succeeded in crossing into Turkish territory were then rounded up by security personnel and deported back over the border into Syria, in violation of international law on non-refoulement that forbids forced returns of asylum seekers. At times, refugees faced beatings as well as verbal abuse before deportation, those who have attempted the crossing tell Syria Direct.

Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million UN-registered Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. Ankara also administers a series of internal displacement camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, in an area of Syria’s northern Aleppo province that is controlled by Turkish-backed rebel groups.

But the border remains officially shuttered to Syrian refugees hoping to flee to safety, with only those in need of emergency medical treatment allowed through. A wall of concrete slabs seals shut most of Turkey’s nearly 1,000-kilometer border with Syria.

The possibility of yet more escalation in Idlib could soon test the Turkish government’s Syrian border policy, as Ibrahim and other people trapped in Idlib increasingly see Turkey as their only way out to safety.

Civil Defense respond to a bombing in rural Idlib on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense

Since pro-government forces seized all of Syria’s southwestern Daraa and Quneitra provinces last month in an all-out aerial and ground assault, all eyes have turned to Idlib.

“Now, Idlib is our goal,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russian media late last month, as the battle for the south came to a close.

Last week, the Russian military announced that two of its warships had been deployed to Syria’s Mediterranean coast—joining three other ships recently spotted heading there, according to Reuters. An Iraqi proxy militia, Liwa Imam al-Hussein, has also reportedly deployed close to Idlib province, while pro-government ground forces—including the elite Tiger Forces and reconciled rebel factions—were stationed near Idlib over the weekend.

Pro-government bombardments in August have meanwhile already killed dozens of civilians throughout Idlib and displaced thousands more.

The violence spiked earlier this week when Syrian and Russian warplanes bombed Idlib’s western countryside, killing at least three people. Continuing bombardments on rebel-held areas of Idlib have led to further civilian casualties.

Fighting in Idlib could “quickly become a humanitarian catastrophe,” the Norwegian Refugee Council warned in a statement on Wednesday, predicting that 700,000 people could become displaced in the event of a major pro-government offensive.

A people smuggling industry

Smuggling networks operating in northwestern Syria are accommodating the seemingly growing demand from fearful Syrians looking for a way out.

On one local buy-and-sell Facebook page based in a rural Idlib town, there are a handful of ads that stick out among the cell phones, used farm equipment and living room furniture sets.

In one post from earlier this week, a Facebook user writes: “I know a woman and two young children who want to get into Turkey...Whoever has a way in, send me a private message.”

A post on another town’s “market” group advertises a local smuggler’s services: “Smuggling route, let’s go to Turkey—men and women. Great, very good!” Beneath the message, a smuggler’s phone number, and commenters asking for details about the route and price.

A seemingly wide-reaching network of business-minded Idlib residents are taking advantage of the heightened demand for irregular routes into Turkey. The result: a not-so-underground people smuggling industry to get across the border.

When Syria Direct called one of the phone numbers being advertised on Facebook, a man answered, laying out the prices and route of his smuggling business, which operates from a town in northern Idlib near the border.

“We have lookouts who monitor the [border] wall and the movements of the Turkish gendarmes,” the man claimed, adding that when the way appears to be clear, “we move passengers from the Syrian side using a ladder.”

The man then claimed that for $450 per adult, and $550 per child, smugglers would guide Syrians through a journey of between an hour to an hour and a half—“[or] at most, two.” When the group reached the outskirts of Antakya, a city in Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Idlib, smugglers would then send a video to the office back in Syria, to confirm everyone made it.

He then sent several cell phone videos purportedly showing groups of at least five people—men and women—who had made it to safehouses in Turkey since late last month.

But former Daraa-based journalist Ibrahim and three others told Syria Direct of a sometimes days-long, gruelling trek spanning both Syrian and Turkish territory.

Media activist Mahmoud Saeed, who made it to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep last month, estimated his own journey took upwards of 26 hours. He also decided to make the trip after arriving in Idlib several weeks ago from his hometown in Daraa via the government’s evacuation buses.

After climbing up a wooden ladder that took him over the border wall, he and his companions cautiously made their way through valleys and olive groves, hiding whenever they spotted a Turkish security convoy.

“I was wearing sandals,” the 20-year-old tells Syria Direct. “I was told [the trip] would be 15 minutes long, and easy.”

By the time he reached Gaziantep, Saeed had injured his hand and leg while climbing over the rocky terrain. The group of roughly 35 men, women and children had eaten one meal—not included in the original price of the journey—and had resorted to drinking water from a muddy well in the forest.

But now far away from the looming battle for Idlib, Saeed says the journey was worth it.

“A lot of what’s going to happen in Idlib is going to be the same as in Daraa,” Saeed says.

Today, Saeed is living in a rented apartment in Gaziantep that a handful of acquaintances from Daraa province found for him.

Ibrahim, meanwhile, hasn’t been so lucky. He moves from rental home to rental home in the northern Idlib countryside along with his friends from Daraa, seeking out people smugglers in the hope that his next attempt will be a success.

Getting out of Syria, he says, is his only goal.

“[Idlib] has faced threats recently that seem like the beginning of an imminent military campaign,” Ibrahim tells Syria Direct. “I don’t want to have to witness this yet again with my own eyes.”

“I want to live in safety, outside Syria.”

* Suleiman Ibrahim participated in a Syria Direct training session in Amman, Jordan in the spring before voluntarily returning to his native Syria earlier this year. He continued his work in media until pro-government forces launched a campaign to retake rebel positions in Syria’s southwest in June.

UPDATE: Ibrahim is currently in Turkey's Gaziantep after successfully crossing the border line late Thursday night alongside a group of about 60 people, he estimates, "most of them women and children." He plans on remaining in Gaziantep for the time being, "so that I can rest." 

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.


Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.

Maram al-Abed

Maram is from Damascus province. She left Damascus for Jordan in 2013 because of the war in her country. She enrolled in the Syria Direct training program with the hope of helping to return stability and peace to her country.