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?”