February 24, 2020 / 5:30 PM / a month ago

As Syrian forces advance on Idlib, families fear being trapped at Turkish border

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the displaced persons camp where Adnan Abdelkarim and his family have taken shelter along the Turkish border after being uprooted multiple times, and he fears there is nowhere left to go.

“Today the regime is advancing from everywhere and we are trapped along the border,” said 30-year-old Abdelkarim.

At the Atmeh camp on the northern edge of Idlib province, uprooted families are arriving in droves as they flee bombardment from air strikes and artillery shelling.

They fear being trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. About 50 meters from the camp an imposing gray concrete wall is crowned with barbed wire, blocking their entry to Turkey.

“In the event the regime advances..., either we will die storming the Turkish wall and fleeing with our families...or slaughter ourselves by turning ourselves over,” said Abdelkarim.

Backed by heavy Russian air power, Syrian government forces have stepped up a campaign to retake the last rebel stronghold in the northwestern regions of Aleppo and Idlib, sparking an exodus of nearly a million people toward a shrinking pocket along the Turkish frontier.

On Monday, Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound eastern and southern areas of Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, and witnesses.

The Observatory said on Monday that pro-Damascus forces had seized control of 10 more towns in southern areas of Idlib province in less than 24 hours. It said fighting continued meanwhile around the Idlib town of Neirab between government forces and rebels backed by Turkish artillery.

“People here have little hope and everyone has started to head toward the border, fearful of the (government) advance,” said Ismail Shahine, 37, originally displaced six years earlier from the Hama countryside.

Shahine on Monday prepared a tent to accommodate the rest of his family, which he said would soon arrive from the western countryside of Aleppo, where government forces have retaken large swathes of land from rebels at a rapid clip in recent weeks.

Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.

Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrians and says it cannot absorb any more.

Slideshow (10 Images)

As Turkish military convoys continue to enter northern Syria, Shahine and others near the border have pinned their hopes on Erdogan’s pledge to force Damascus to retreat.

“Everyone today is waiting for the start of the coming month, for the deadline that Erdogan gave the regime to withdraw,” said Shahine. “I am expecting that they will make a move and not leave the Syrian people to fend for themselves.”

Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Nick Macfie

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