Syrians take refuge Thursday at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing near the Syrian town of Azaz, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey.
Syrians take refuge Thursday at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing near the Syrian town of Azaz, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey. Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Syria's president has vowed to crush the rebels by any means; his air force has not spared the towns and villages that support rebel brigades. In August, the death toll often topped 250 a day, according to Syrian activists. The fighting between troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces has also sparked a refugee crisis for Syria's neighbors as thousands flee to the borders.
Much of northern Syria is now in rebel control, from the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's financial hub, to the Turkish border. But the regime still controls the skies and the rebels lack the weapons to challenge the air force attacks.
Camped at a border post waiting to cross into Turkey, Syrian refugees tell a similar story about why they packed up and ran from home. Like many others Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town.
"Because the airplane takes the city every day, I feel terrible, horrible," says Yousef, who's from Aleppo province. "We are tired."
Like many others, Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town. Rebel brigades have grown bolder in ambushing regime troops and tanks, but are mainly powerless against the air force attacks.
'An Attempt To Incite People'
Just a few miles down the road into northern Syria, a middle school has been battered with gaping holes in the two-story concrete walls.
A rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade has set up a headquarters here. The Brigade is the largest in this part of Aleppo province and sends men to Aleppo city to fight alongside other brigades says commander Abu Joulan. The 26-year-old fighter defected from the Syrian army last year. He can see the refugees heading by car and on foot to the Turkish border. He believes the regime is targeting civilians even more than the rebels.
"It's an attempt to incite people against us because the moment we are gaining control over areas then it is increasing," he says. "There are areas where there are no military battles, but they are targeting it, so people turn against us."
The rebel base is on the outskirts of Azaz, a prosperous border town that once was home to 70,000 residents. Now, only 10,000 remain. Rebels pushed the army out last month in a series of street battles that left four army tanks buried in rubble in front of the town's largest mosque.
In the town square, children play in the wreckage and families pose for photographs in front of the burned out symbols of regime defeat.
But daily life in Azaz is hardly normal. Regime loyalists are gone, but garbage is piled in the streets and the schools are closed.
At the local hospital, the windows of the X-ray room are shattered. There is only one doctor who sees patients. The rest fled to Turkey.
The shops are mostly empty. Not much food gets delivered to Azaz. International aid is almost nonexistent; baby formula is now impossible to find. On the main street, residents line up for bread at a bakery where flour is supplied by a Turkish charity. But there won't be enough for everybody.
Refugees At Home
The larger hardship comes from the mortars and artillery shells that land in Azaz almost every night. The Syrian military still controls an airbase about 10 miles outside town. A fighter jet dropped two bombs in one neighborhood, killing at least 60 people earlier this month.
At sunset, many here clear out of town, says shopkeeper Hamid Ajuma. That's when the shelling often starts.
"Many people just take their families. We take a mattress, we take whatever we can," he says. "We spend the night outdoors, and then, in the day, we come back to our houses."
Many more are now heading for the Turkish border — about five miles away — to join the mass of Syrian refugees.
Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.