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Aid workers and journalists flee Syria as regime advances

Civilians and aid workers are fleeing the fighting [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 October, 2019

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Aid workers and Syrian Kurdish civilians desperately made their way to a border crossing with Iraq as regime troops, invited by Kurdish forces, advanced amid an ongoing Turkish offensive.

It was a sign of the sudden transformation sweeping Kurdish-run northeast Syria: foreign aid workers and journalists packed this border crossing on Monday, rushing to get out to Iraq.

The exodus was not propelled by the Turkish offensive launched last week. Instead, it was the return to the area of Bashar al-Assad's regime, after several years of Kurdish self-rule.

The rush to leave the country reflected the sudden and dramatic nosedive of the aspirations of Syria's Kurdish minority for autonomy.

The Kurdish-led administration says it was forced to invite Syrian regime troops in when American troops withdrew from border regions, leading to a Turkish offensive in northern Syria.

Foreigners who had entered "Rojava" - as the Kurds call their region - now woke up to uncertainty over who would be in charge. If the Assad regime was back in control of the area, they would effectively be considred in the country illegally.

Read more: Syria’s north is up for grabs as Turkey offensive begins

The departing foreigners were the main activity at the Semelka crossing Monday. The truck lane of the usually bustling commercial gateway was empty - one pick-up truck with sheep in the back stood in the parking lot. Dozens of Syrians waited to cross into Iraq.

Though few organisations made official announcements, it appeared almost all foreigners working for aid groups were leaving. Dozens of foreign journalists covering the offensive also pulled out, fearing getting caught in the regime’s security web.

Kurdish authorities issued a statement saying that all foreign workers had pulled out.

"The humanitarian plight of the displaced in areas targeted by the aggression has worsened with all humanitarian aid being cut and all international organisations ceasing their activities," the statement said.

The Kurds set up their administration in the northeast after the Syrian government pulled out its troops seven years ago to fight rebels elsewhere at the height of the civil war. When Islamic State militants swarmed their areas, the Kurds allied with the US to fight them.

With oil resources recaptured from IS, water resources and millions of dollars in foreign aid, the Kurdish-led administration set up functioning institutions and has pushed ahead with reconstruction and development after the devastation of the war on IS.

Aid workers, construction firms and contractors were drawn to the area. Even exiled Kurds returned.

However, there were also accusations from human rights organisations that the administration’s security forces had driven out thousands of Arab residents of northeastern Syria, burning homes and destroying villages.

Rojava was never recognized by Damascus or the international community. Its administration of Semelka, the territory's only crossing to the outside world, was informal.

"This is our nightmare scenario," said Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps' deputy country director for Syria, which had to pull its international staff out of northeastern Syria.

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