A stream of cars and trucks clog the roads of Idlib every day, each one full of the recently homeless, stacked high with the few possessions they could snatch as the bombing drew closer.
A great mass of desperate civilians is on the move in the northern Syrian province, as government forces tighten the noose around the last rebel-held enclave in the country.
Since the latest push in Russian-backed offensive began in December, dozens of towns and villages have been recaptured by the Syrian government from an array of nationalist and jihadist rebel groups, some of which are backed by Turkey.
Intensive bombing has targeted hospitals, killed civilians and emptied towns and cities – some 700,000 people have fled in the last 10 weeks, in what the United Nations has described as the largest displacement in such a short space of time in the course of the entire war.
Families are arriving in towns further north every day with no shelter available to them, just as winter temperatures begin to bite. With the Turkish border closed, and the province surrounded by government forces, there is nowhere left for them to turn.
“Thousands of people are here in the streets. If you walk around you can see them. They have no plan and no idea what to do,” said Fayyad Akoush, a Syrian activist who fled with his wife and two young children from the city of Atareb three days ago.
“No one is helping us. The whole world watches us while we die. We are just waiting for the shells to fall on us,” he told The Independent by phone.
Around 3 million people are now crowded into Idlib province – more than 1 million of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
While the region has been a refuge throughout much of the war, today there are not enough tents for the new arrivals. As displacement camps filled up, schools and mosques opened their doors to fill the gap. Now, even they are full.
“The number of people being displaced in this crisis is now spiralling out of control with thousands of more people on the move,” said David Swanson, the United Nations’ regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis, speaking from southern Turkey.
“Many of those who have sought shelter in camps, informal settlements or unfinished buildings have nothing but the clothes on their backs,” he added.
Thaer Ibrahim, a 28-year-old accountant originally from Aleppo, has fled twice in the past month in his search for safety. After moving to Atareb from the town of Kafr Naha when it came under fire last month, he was forced to leave again in recent days when the bombing followed him.
Two days ago he moved further north with his wife and three children, among them a six-week old baby girl. It took him four hours to drive less than 20 miles due to the masses of people on the roads.
“I feel a sense of powerlessness. I am unable to keep my children safe and warm, or find a place to live for them,” he said. “I will go anywhere, even if I have to live in a tent, in order to protect my family from harm.”
“It takes hours by car to go anywhere because of how many people are on the roads. There is not enough running water. Basic necessities are available, but not in big enough quantities, and are very expensive. Bread is only available for a few hours – if you don’t make it in time you won’t get any,” he added.
The worsening humanitarian situation has prompted dire warnings from the United Nations, which has called for more funding as the level of displacement has outstripped its capacity.
Mark Cutts, the UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, described the new displacement in Idlib as an “exodus” as he called for international action on the crisis.
“We’ve been calling repeatedly in the Security Council for the protection of the civilian population.”
“What’s this world coming to if we’re not able to protect 3 million civilians – mostly women and children – who are trapped in a war zone?” he asked.
The Syrian government and its allies have made drives into Idlib before, but the most recent offensive has been its most forceful yet. Backed by Russian and Iranian forces, regime troops claimed on Tuesday the capture of a strategic highway between Aleppo and Damascus, which had been a long-held objective.
In recent days, the renewed push by Damascus to eliminate the last rebel bastion has brought it into direct confrontation with Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups in the province and has its own troops stationed at observation posts along the frontlines.
Thirteen Turkish military personnel have been killed by Syrian government shelling in the past 10 days. Turkey claims to have killed 52 Syrian soldiers in response, and the country’s president vowed more reprisals if any more Turkish troops were harmed.
“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating, without allowing for any stalling,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.
Despite Turkey’s protestations, it is unclear whether it will be able to take a decisive stand against Syria’s ally, Russia, which controls the airspace over Idlib. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has promised to recapture every last inch of the country, and appears to have the full support of Moscow to do so.
Meanwhile, western countries have largely been reduced to observer status in Idlib, with little influence over events.
One western diplomat said that Turkey’s strategy of freezing the frontlines in the province to prevent another refugee influx “appears to be failing”.
“The Turks overplayed their hand. They were expecting too much from the Russians and the deals from the Americans, meanwhile making threats to Europe on the refugees and then expecting us to pay for the refugees,” the diplomat said, who did not wish to be named.
For the civilians crowded into Idlib, the outlook is grim. Many oppose the jihadist forces which control much of the area, but a significant number fear they would face imprisonment or death if government forces regained control.
While Turkey’s border remains closed, civilians in Idlib are trapped in an ever-shrinking territory, with no shelter, falling temperatures, and no way of escape.
Ibrahim, the father of three from Aleppo, said he feared the worst.
“We feel like we are postponing death, but that it is inevitable,” said Ibrahim.
Additional reporting by Borzou Daragahi
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