Istanbul—The airstrikes began just after midnight one week ago, as four or more warplanes criss-crossed the skies and unleashed missiles into the small town just northwest of Aleppo. The targets were private residences and apartments on the outskirts of Haritan, and then the town center.
The windows in Salah Hawa’s four-room house had already been shattered by an airstrike nearby last month. The latest blasts blew out the nylon sheets used to cover the gaps.
After two days and nights of attacks—possibly 300 missiles or more—Hawa, a 40-year-old English teacher, and his wife and four children, aged 5 to 16, fled to the nearby countryside in a neighbor’s pickup truck.
During one airstrike, his wife, Hasna, 39, lay down, and for an hour, “she couldn’t stand up out of fear,” Hawa recounted in a Skype conversation from northern Syria. “My children clung to me, crying, and said we are going to die.”
Hawa’s family, multiplied by 10,000, are the face of the latest mass displacement in Syria. They are now living in a village about 30 miles to the west, in Idlib province in a house shared with four other families. Tens of thousands of others displaced by the fighting headed to the closed border with Turkey, where accommodation was even more scarce.
It is the latest evidence of a dramatic shift in the war that began with the Russia air intervention last September 30. Russia claims to be bombing only “terrorists” and has told the Obama administration it is committed to a political settlement. But the real aim of the latest onslaught—which forced the United Nations to suspend peace talks before they even began—could be a lot more menacing.
The airstrikes cleared the way for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, Iraqi militias, and Afghan Hazara forces, which are officered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Syrian security forces, to make critical advances on the ground. Now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is poised to surround Aleppo and besiege some 250,000 civilians living in the rebel-defended eastern sector.
If the military advances continue, Assad soon will also be able to block all military and humanitarian aid now flowing across the border from Turkey. But Assad is also in a position to drive millions of Syrians out of their country into Turkey, which will be hard pressed to stop them from continuing on to Europe. Mass displacement increasingly appears to be the aim of the military operation, and not just a side effect, humanitarian aid officials say.
“The Syrian government is driving its people into exile and the Russians are playing a major part, forcing civilians to Turkey which, caught between this violent exodus and pressure from Europe, risks being destabilized,” said Rae McGrath, head of the Mercy Corps program in Turkey and north Syria. “How can we talk about protecting civilians in the midst of this cynical disregard for the most basic humanitarian principles?”
Syria’s internally displaced, who number at least 7 million, are thus at center stage of the military drama now unfolding. The big question is how it will end. Many of the displaced took part in the 2011 uprising against the Assad regime or have family members among rebel forces. They fear that if they cannot get into Turkey, they face slaughter at the hands of Assad’s forces and their Iran-led allies.
Humanitarian aid officials recall the assault of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, on political opponents in Hama, in central Syria, 34 years ago this month, in which his security forces killed at least 10,000, possibly several times that number, of political opponents.
Responding to the threat is a quandary not only for Europe but also for the United States, which has covertly supplied vetted rebel forces with just enough military aid to protect the lives of the civilians, but not enough to block the Russian-aided offensive.
Ever since Russians went on the offensive, chiefly against US-supported rebels, American officials have refused requests by rebel commanders to step up the supply of TOW anti-tank missiles and other weapons, commanders say.
“The Americans said to the [rebel] commanders here in Turkey and to the High Negotiations Committee in Riyadh that they are not ready to enter a Third World War,” said Osama Abu Zaid, legal adviser to the rebel forces.
Fear of a direct clash between NATO and Russia may explain the near-silence of the US government over the systematic assault on civilians, clear violations of humanitarian law conventions.
The pattern of bombings suggests that Russia’s aim in northern Syria, like that of the Assad regime, is to destroy civilian habitat, food production, markets, healthcare and the infrastructure needed to sustain life. In October and November, for example, Russian or Syrian government aircraft struck 16 bakeries or public markets, nine schools, seven mosques, six field hospitals, and three camps for the internally displaced, according to the White Helmets, the Syrian civil defense organization that rescues those trapped when government bombs collapse their buildings.
This continued through last week. Shortly after Hawas and his family left Haritan on the 30-mile trip to the village of Hazano, Russian warplanes destroyed the hospital and the main bakery. Salah had no doubt the warplanes were Russian, because the Syrian air force generally deploys one plane at a time, and never attacks for 24 hours straight with such ferocity. “They’d targeted the hospital 10 times before, but this last one was so severe that the staff removed all the equipment they could carry” and moved to another town, he said.
Haritan lies on a strategic supply route to Aleppo, and this may be the reason it’s been targeted, but Hazano, in a less strategic location close to the Turkish border, was not immune. In fact, it was about to open a new bakery on January 28, designed to feed 18,000 people and paid for with British aid, when Russian bombers fired rockets into an apartment house nearby, killing eight and severely damaging the bakery.
The White Helmets also reported some 50 attacks on open fields last autumn, and 15 attacks on farms, which their local rescue squads said in may cases were cluster-bomb attacks on olive groves. “It’s economic warfare,” said Ola Suliman, a staff member. “Typically they use cluster munitions in the fields so they cannot be tended. It was a deliberate tactic at the time of the olive harvest.”
A second major civilian target for Russian or Syrian aircraft has been hospitals, which are protected under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Russian or Syrian aircraft have struck at least 41 healthcare facilities since August, according to Physicians for Human Rights, a US monitoring group. “Each attack is a war crime,” Elise Baker, who is managing documentation of the destruction of medical facilities in Syria, told The Nation.
The UN said last week that it had received reports of thirteen hospital facilities attacked in January alone, culminating in an attack on the main hospital in Anadan, the town next to Haritan, on January 31. That hospital had served some 45,000 people, but it’s now out of service.
Russia and the Syrian regime have hit schools throughout the country. “Two of our schools that we repaired in Aleppo were bombed to pieces” in early January, and as many as 1,000 children no longer had schools to attend, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said recently at a press conference in Geneva. Also hit was a shelter for nearly 500 people, 300 of them children, at the end of December. The NGO had lost contact with the families, who apparently were displaced again.
At least three schools were destroyed in last week’s raids in Haritan, according to Salah. He spoke with The Nation from a room packed with children; “we’re in one place so we can economize on the heat,” he said.
Their quarters may sound tight, but compared with other internally displaced people, they’re living relatively well. Consider the alternatives—laid out in a compilation of movements of the internally displaced since October that was provided to The Nation by Humanitarian Research Services, a New York–based consultancy:
* In early December, as 150 people arrived in Harim, west of Idlib on the Turkish border, from Jebel Turkmen in Latakia province, HRS noted, “They are in dire need of housing, because there is a housing shortage in Harim, as those who have not secured a spot in the schools have been forced to put up tents out in the open.”
* In Abin Sama’an, a town west of Aleppo, about 250 people arrived from the southern countryside near Aleppo. “Due to the a housing shortage, more than 180 families have been forced to put up tents in one of the town squares.”
* In Idlib, where some 4,700 people arrived from southern Aleppo and other locations, internally displaced were living in gyms, buildings under construction, and “houses that are not fit to live in.”
* In Moataf, in the northwest countryside of Aleppo, where 175 people arrived from southern Aleppo, housing had run out, so the internally displaced were “living in chicken coops that they have divided into rooms.”
* And finally, this HRS entry from last week, on the arrival of 11,000 displaced from Deir Jmal to Tall Refaat, northwest of Aleppo: “Sources report that the entire population of Deir Jmal has left their homes as the result of the intense aerial bombardment and the increasing threat of ground attack.”
Mousab Alhamadee contributed to this report from Gaziantep.