Syrian Conflict Traps Refugees in an Exodus to Nowhere

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Killi village in the northwestern corner of Syria became a refuge six months ago as thousands of families fled shelling by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and airstrikes by one of its main allies, Russia.

Now, as Turkey seeks Moscow’s help to seize a strip of northeast Syria, the village has also become another square on the Middle East geopolitical chessboard.

Abdelkarim Mustafa, 41 years old, fled to the Killi area with his wife and their seven children in the spring, escaping the bombs of Russian fighter jets and seeking treatment after losing a leg in an airstrike.

For a short time this summer, the family took shelter in one of the many refugee camps dotting the desolate agricultural region. But with humanitarian organizations struggling to cope with the 500,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in the area in the past six months, they were told to leave.

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Mr. Mustafa’s hopes of crossing the border 10 miles away into Turkey were dashed when the Erdogan government tightened it this summer. Now, the family lives nearby on a rocky hilltop in the village of Killi, crammed into a tent too flimsy to keep out rain. There are no latrines and the ground is infested with snakes and scorpions.

“I can’t return to my home. I can’t go to Turkey,” said Mr. Mustafa, sitting next to his prosthetic limb. “My biggest dream has been reduced to having a tent on this wind-blown hill.”

The Mustafa family is among hundreds of thousands of Syrians caught in an exodus to nowhere.

They are stuck in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, a territory the size of Delaware that is the last stronghold of rebels resisting the Assad regime. The deadly vise could become the worst humanitarian catastrophe of an eight-year-old Syrian conflict, which has claimed 500,000 lives.

South of the village, the government has launched a military offensive to reclaim the province, sending scores of families with children, many wounded, on the road.

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To the north, safety in Turkey lies tantalizingly close. But the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, feeling the strain of hosting four million Syrian refugees, has walled up most of its 500-mile border with Syria and refuses to take the more than three million civilians trapped in Idlib.

All summer, Mr. Erdogan sounded the alarm over the humanitarian mayhem in Idlib, and Russia agreed to suspend airstrikes in late August.

But after launching its own military offensive in northeastern Syria on Oct. 9, forcing more than 160,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations, Turkey is now seeking the Kremlin’s support to drive Kurdish fighters Ankara regards as a terrorist threat away from a 300-mile strip running along its border.

The price to pay, Turkish officials said, will be to let Russia and the Assad regime complete their offensive in Idlib.

Idlib’s population more than doubled to 1.5 million over the past two years, when civilians fleeing fighting elsewhere in Syria were evacuated to the province. Thousands of rebels who had lost their fight against the Assad regime were also sent there.

The regime, which has reclaimed large swaths of Syria’s territory with support from Russia and Iran since 2015, is determined to reconquer the province, saying it is a haven for radical Islamic groups. In late April, Assad forces and Russian combat jets began pounding towns in the south of Idlib.

Relief organizations say civilians will bear the brunt of a full-scale offensive because an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 militants are dispersed among them.

Rasmiya al Hassan, a Syrian mother of seven, left a village in southern Idlib to reach the Killi hills in September in search of a shelter after her husband was killed and their house destroyed by Assad forces. The 46-year-old widow plowed $50, all her savings, into hiring a vehicle. But the blue pick-up truck in which she and other villagers escaped could only carry 15 people. She had to leave three of her children—three boys in their early teens—behind.

On a recent Tuesday, she stood in a field, next to her possessions: rugs, a couple of mattresses and a cooking pot.

“That’s all we could take with us,” she said. “Where are we going to sleep tonight? Who will help transport my missing children here?”

Turkish authorities allowed The Wall Street Journal to go into Idlib through the heavily guarded Bab al-Hawa border crossing. A representative from the Salvation Government—the political wing of a powerful rebel extremist group known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—who identified himself as Moussa and accompanied a journalist on the Syrian side, said his group lacked financial resources to cope with the unrelenting flow of families fleeing the south.

To avoid ruining the little farming activity that endures there, the Salvation Government is trying to prevent the new arrivals from trampling on fields where olives and other crops grow. It has bulldozed dirt roads leading to the hills, arranging lines of dusty, patched-up tents and distributing water and bread.

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“That’s all we can do,” he said.

Mohammed Rahal struggles daily to find food. Sitting in a shelter, he is looking after 11 children, his own six and five orphans from his brother and sister-in-law, who were killed when the southern Idlib town of Kafranbel was bombed four months ago. His left leg is swollen because of a recent scorpion bite.

“I feel so miserable, I only have stale bread to feed them,” the 34-year-old said, visibly exhausted as his 18-month-old twin nieces curled up on his knees.

Nearby on the hill, Abdelrazzak Bishkawi gestures at his elder sister, Tayba. The 55-year-old Syrian lies on a hospital bed under a tarp, trying to wipe away her tears. Disabled since childhood, she fled in the direction of the Turkish border when Russian bombs destroyed the family farm in southern Idlib.

“Look at her,” Mr. Bishkawi said. “She’s among those the Russians and Assad call terrorists.” He has heard that smugglers were charging $600 a person to take Syrian refugees into Turkey. “I don’t have that money and I can’t abandon my sister,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the offensive to reclaim Idlib was legitimate because the province had fallen under the control of radical groups.

Early last year, the Idlib province appeared a safe destination to Saoussen Moussali. With her husband and their five children, she was evacuated by U.N.-chartered buses from Eastern Ghouta after rebels who held that Damascus suburb surrendered to the Assad regime.

Ms. Moussali, 40, feared her sons would be enlisted in the Syrian army or killed if they stayed. Her elder son was wounded in a 2013 chemical attack on the suburb, and her husband injured in a 2014 airstrike. They had only grass to eat during the final months of the siege.

When they arrived in the southern Idlib town of Maarrat al Nu’man in April 2018, a family let them stay for free and Ms. Moussali’s elder sons found jobs at a local bakery. Her son Mohammed, then 9, attended school for the first time.

In September, however, Ms. Moussali was wounded in the head when the Maarrat al Nu’man house was destroyed by bombs. The family decided to flee toward the Turkish border. “I was so scared,” she said.

Over the course of two days, Ms. Moussali’s husband ferried the family, one by one, to Killi using their most precious possession—a motorcycle.

After wandering in fields for about a week, they found a tent in one of the makeshift camps. Wind swept it away twice in the past week. Now the family is dreading the looming winter.

“I have my children with me,” Ms. Moussali said. “That’s the most important.”

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