Humanitarian tragedy in northern Syria

Bassel Oudat , Friday 18 Oct 2019

With over 200,000 Syrians displaced by the current Turkish military operation in northern Syria, another humanitarian catastrophe is in the making, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Humanitarian tragedy  in northern Syria
Syrian families fleeing from Ras Al-Ain along the border with Turkey (photos: AFP)

The most devastating result of the military offensive launched by Turkish forces in alliance with the Syrian opposition in northern Syria is the humanitarian disaster that is getting worse by the day.

A week following the launch of Operation Spring Peace in northern Syria against Kurdish forces affiliated to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Syrian wing of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Syrian rights organisations have reported that hundreds of thousands of civilians from different areas of the region have left their homes to flee the incursion.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, more than 250,000 civilians have fled their homes in search of safety from Kurdish-controlled areas, escaping from a war zone that is expected to witness more violence.

Local sources estimate that the number of displaced people stands at 200,000, however. The majority of these have fled from Ras Al-Ain to Hasakah, while those who have left Tel Abyad have headed to Raqqa and neighbouring villages.

Local sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the number of the displaced was increasing on a daily basis. Those who had left their homes had come from the different ethnicities that inhabit the region, including Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Chechens, they said.

The main military operations have been waged in areas with an Arab majority, the sources added. Arabs comprise 60 per cent of the residents of Ras Al-Ain and 90 per cent of the inhabitants of Tel Abyad. Villages surrounding Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad house a Kurdish majority.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have lost 800 lives, according to Turkish media, while more than 100 people from Ankara-backed Syrian opposition factions have died. Eight Turkish soldiers have been killed, but Ankara has admitted to the deaths of five.

The Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria (RRCS), an ally of the Syrian regime, has said that humanitarian conditions in the border areas of northeast Syria are getting worse.

Alexei Bakin, head of the RRCS, said that “more than 100,000 people who have left the war zone have gathered in Qamishli, Hasakah, and neighbouring towns. Health facilities, trade and services have all come to a halt.”

Bakin called on the Syrian government to regain control of the region “to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe”. The Syrian authorities should organise the delivery of humanitarian aid to the displaced and prevent the collapse of health services and the social and economic infrastructure in northern Syria, he added.

In Tel Abyad, the first target of the Turkish military campaign, a hospital supported by the international NGO Doctors without Borders was shut down when the majority of medical staff left the area with their families.

The hospital had been crucial for providing medical services to local residents. Doctors without Borders expressed its concern about the fate of civilians in northeast Syria, saying that the escalation “will exacerbate the shocks the Syrians have endured during the years of war and living in danger.

 “We saw in Tel Abyad a lively city turn into a ghost town. After eight years of war, Syrian people have had to leave their homes and belongings once more in search of safety,” it said.

The displaced have sought refuge in schools, offices, shops and relatives’ houses. The needs of thousands of women and children living in camps have increased, and some humanitarian organisations have had to suspend or decrease their activities.

Another local source said that “the number of the displaced varies according to the region. Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad have received the largest number of people who have fled their homes. There are no reported displacements in Qamishli or on the east bank of the Euphrates towards Al-Zor.”

These areas are relatively safe, and the number of the displaced has superseded the number of original inhabitants. But the migration of Syrians to these cities is likely to be only temporary, sources say. They are expected to return to their homes after stability is restored, unlike in other areas where people have not been able to return to their homes after military operations.

The Turkish military operation has had other repercussions on the humanitarian level. Besides the injuries sustained, people have fled their homes with nothing and without the ability to buy food or water. As far as hospitals and infrastructure services are concerned, sources say there is a dire need for mobile hospitals, medicines and physicians.

Education has come to a halt in Tel Abyad and the border strip with Turkey after the launch of the operation. Schools have reopened in areas where control has been regained.

The Turkish forces and allied Syrian opposition National Army now control 80 per cent of Tel Abyad and Ras Al-Ain, according to sources.

The European countries have said they have offered tens of millions of dollars to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe in northern Syria through international organisations, but aid programmes alone will not be able to deal with the avalanche of displacements.

At present, there are no functioning aid organisations in Ras Al-Ain, Tel Abyad, or the surrounding areas. After the US withdrawal from these zones, 22 international organisations were relocated to Erbil in Iraq due to problems in working in the area, and they are currently re-assessing their work in the region.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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