There are thousands of them, Syrians who have fled a recent escalation in their country's years-long civil war, running for their lives from a joint Russian-Syrian government assault on the towns of northern Syria. Yet on the Turkish side of the Bab al-Salama border crossing, less than 36 miles from Aleppo, the gateway linking Syria to Turkey is all but deserted. A long straight road lined with olive groves leads to the crossing from the nearby Turkish town of Kilis. At the gate of the crossing, vendors on one side of the deserted road hawk juice, tea, nuts and cigarettes from under brightly colored umbrellas. Children from a nearby refugee scamper in the road in front of the gate. One enterprising group of vendors sells fish from the back of an old dark grey sedan. “Fish! A kilo for a lira!” shouts one peddler, to no one and no customer in particular.
The peculiar calm north of the border stands in brutal contrast to the situation to the south, where about 70,000 people have recently fled their homes. Many of them are gathered—trapped, really—in an encampment on the southern side of the Bab al-Salama crossing point, just out of sight from Turkey. Reversing a longstanding policy of welcoming Syrian refugees, Turkey has sealed the border to the vast majority of newly displaced people. Now, most Syrians fleeing the escalation in the north of the country can no longer escape.
And then there are the explosions. Every few minutes, there is a loud thump, sometimes followed by a plume of smoke on the hillside across the border in Syria. The thumping is thought to be Turkish artillery shells, targeting the Kurdish armed groups who are capturing towns from mainstream Syrian rebel groups. The sound of firing continued Wednesday morning and afternoon, before stopping on Thursday.
The shelling is one sign that the war in northern Syria is spiraling further out of control. Backed by an intense assault by Russian jets, forces supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are advancing near the city of Aleppo, where they could place a key rebel stronghold under siege. The Russian air campaign threatens the continuing viability of the five-year-old rebellion against Assad, in which nearly half a million people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes.
Kurdish groups appear to have also capitalized on the Russian air campaign, capturing other rebel-held towns near Aleppo this week. The advances by Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party's (PYD) armed wing have alarmed Turkey, which regards the group as a terrorist organization and an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), another Kurdish group which has fought a three-decade battle with Ankara over the rights of minority Kurds in Turkey.
In response, Turkey began shelling Kurdish positions near its border north of Aleppo on February 13. The Turkish government also called this week for a ground incursion into Syria that would potentially include its own and allied forces.
It's a possibility analysts believe is unlikely for the moment, but what's clear is that the Russian-backed offensive has upended the already chaotic geopolitical calculus in northern Syria, producing a multipolar showdown between an array of local and international actors. The rebel groups that sprouted from the unarmed uprising against Assad five years ago now face an assault from the regime, the Russians, the Kurds and the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
The fighting has also pushed even more Syrians from their homes. At least 70,000 people fled their homes in northern Syria between February 1 and 16, according to the United Nations. Of the thousands massed at the Turkish border, only those with specific permits or seeking medical treatment are allowed through.
Those few Syrians who have made it across described hellish scenes in their final moments. Assad Breir, 60, fled the town of Tel Rifaat last week amid Russian airstrikes and before Kurdish forces took over the town, which lies on the strategic highway between the Turkish border and Aleppo. He and his two sons had all worked in construction. Although they had no experience fighting, his sons went to join the last-minute defense of the town against the Kurdish militants, he said. The evacuation of the town was rushed and chaotic, and Breir seemed to be struggling to make sense of his memories as he told his story. “We felt as if we were drunk, but we were not drinking alcohol,” he said.
Dressed in a long grey tunic and flicking a set of prayer beads, Breir spoke in the courtyard of a hospital in Kilis, a few miles from the Syrian border. He managed to enter Turkey by joining a convoy carrying injured people from the town into Turkey, including four of his relatives. Two were being treated in Kilis, while another two were sent to the nearby city of Gaziantep. Breir never saw his sons again. He was told they were killed in fighting. “In Tel Rifaat, everything was killed, down to the ants and the birds," he said.
The escalating war in Syria is also sowing violence in Turkey. On Wednesday night a car bombing killed 28 people in the capital Ankara. The Turkish government blamed Syrian Kurdish militants—a charge they denied—and vowed to continue shelling Kurdish positions in Syria. Meanwhile, a proposed ceasefire plan formulated at a diplomatic summit in Munich last week shows no signs of being implemented. In the face of an ongoing Russian-backed assault, the rebel factions have vowed to continue fighting in what increasingly appears to be a battle for their survival.
Others fleeing the violence say entire towns have been largely depopulated. Abdulrahaman Alhafez, 48, a surgeon at a hospital in the town of Marea, crossed the Bab al-Salama crossing on Thursday morning, carrying a suitcase. “There only a few dozen families left” totaling 100 and 200 people, he said. The majority of the civilians had left when Kurdish-led forces entered Tel Rifaat. “They’re afraid of the Russian airstrikes,” he said. “They’re not afraid of the Kurdish militias. They’re afraid of the airstrikes that come before.”