Thousands of Syrian civilians flee ‘barrels of death’

Opposition-held Aleppo becomes ghost town as improvised aerial explosives destroy whole neighborhoods

A site hit by what activists said were explosive barrels dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Haidariya neighborhood in Aleppo, Feb. 12, 2014.
Saad Abobrahim/Reuters

KILLIS BORDER CROSSING, Turkey — The white Hyundai Accent with Syrian license plates from Aleppo drove quickly across the final stretch of no man's land from Syria, with four young children packed into the backseat with luggage and blankets. In the front seat, a woman held another child in her lap.

After a final passport check by Turkish border guards, the vehicle crossed over to the safety of Turkish territory. The driver, a man who gave his name only as Mahmoud, out of a fear of reprisals by Syrian authorities, said he had put his family through enough in Aleppo.

"We are leaving because of the barrel bombs," he said. "We can’t take it anymore."

Mahmoud and his family are just some of the thousands of Syrians who have fled the devastation from the Syrian regime's use of barrel bombs in Aleppo in the past two weeks. The situation has gotten so bad that fleeing residents described the city to Al Jazeera as empty and a ghost town. Residents emerging from the onslaught were relieved yet visibly anxious.

"There's not a house intact that's not been damaged," said a former electrician, Ahmed, as he crossed the border into Turkey just after Mahmoud and his family. "There’s death everywhere. There are a lot of victims under the rubble. We can’t get them out."

Barrel bombs are simple devices: oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of high-flying Syrian military helicopters over opposition areas. The explosives detonate on impact and can bring down the seven- and eight-story residential buildings typical of Aleppo’s neighborhoods. The regime’s unrestrained use of the indiscriminate weapons has led Syrians to nickname the improvised explosives barrels of death.  

Aleppo residents carrying their belongings at the Karaj al-Hajez passageway separating Bustan al-Qasr, under rebel control, and Al-Masharqa, controlled by the government.
Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

The United Nations says more than 20,000 Syrians have arrived in Turkey so far this year, with sometimes 1,000 to 2,000 arriving daily. The U.N.'s refugee agency says it's the biggest influx since early 2013. The formal refugee camps in Turkey have been overwhelmed by the influx, and some Syrians lucky enough to enter Turkey are sleeping in the Killis bus station for lack of money to pay for a hotel or apartment. Syrians denied access to Turkey are stuck on the Syrian side of the border in no man’s land.

Civilians fleeing Aleppo say whole neighborhoods have been abandoned. Some civilians from the opposition side are fleeing to government-held parts of the city — a dangerous endeavor that involves crossing front lines and risking sniper fire.  

Mahmoud said his family moved seven times during nearly three years of conflict in Aleppo before finally deciding to flee to Turkey. The exploding barrels were the last straw. "We came out by a miracle," he said. "It was very dangerous."

Before the conflict began in 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with an estimated population of 2.3 million. Now the city is nearly split in half between the opposition and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Khaled al-Milaji, acting head of the health department for the opposition National Syrian Coalition's aid arm in Turkey, the Assistance Coordination Unit, said the regime has dropped an average of 30 barrel bombs onto opposition held areas of Aleppo every day since Feb. 1, resulting in about 800 deaths in the city.

Those numbers can't be independently verified, but daily video footage posted on the Internet appears to document the carnage inflicted by the explosive barrels. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that on Feb. 13 alone, airstrikes and barrel bombs killed 51 people.

"It's raining TNT in Aleppo," Milaji said.

A 35-year-old spare-auto-parts dealer named Mohammad, crossing the border into Turkey on Thursday, said he had briefly stayed with his sister in regime-held Aleppo before deciding to go to Turkey. He said his decision was spurred by the fact that so many people had fled to government-held areas that it was overcrowded.

"There are too many people, and the cost of living there became very expensive," he said. He added that government-held neighborhoods weren't without danger either: The opposition retaliates for regime bombings by indiscriminately lobbing mortars into government-held areas.

But the opposition's use of mortars and other light artillery pales compared with the devastating effects of the barrel bombs. The Free Syrian Army's commander in Aleppo province, Col. Abdul Jabar Akaidi, said the barrel bombs haven’t specifically targeted the armed opposition, nor have they affected his troops.

"The safest place in Aleppo is the front line. When I go to Aleppo, I sleep on the front line because it’s safe. You don't sleep in the civilian areas because the bombs fall on those areas," he said.

Akaidi speculated that the regime is using the bombs to push the opposition to leave the second round of the Geneva II negotiations that are taking place in Switzerland. "The government wants to be able to say that the opposition doesn't want to have dialogue or a peaceful solution to the problem," he said.  

A family fleeing the violence in Aleppo's al-Jazmati district.
Hosam Katan /Reuters

Bassam al-Kuwaitli, a former member of the opposition Syrian National Council who now runs a polling company in Gazientep, Turkey, believed the Syrian government's thinking is strategic. He summarized its strategy: Empty opposition areas of civilians so the rebels have no popular support; put pressure on the international community to accept Assad's rule by creating huge, destabilizing refugee populations; and make conditions so terrible for Syrians that they prefer Assad to the bloodbath.

"The final political goal (of the bombing) is to show people the revolution will not bring a better alternative," he said.

In January the London-based Telegraph newspaper quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem's response to a reporter's question about the barrel-bomb attacks on opposition areas: "I want to give you a simple response. Do you want (us) to defend our people by sending SMS messages?"

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month called the Aleppo barrel bombings the Assad regime's "latest barbaric act."

"While the opposition and the international community are focused on ending the war, as outlined in the Geneva communique, the regime is single-mindedly focused on inflicting further destruction to strengthen its hand on the battlefield and undermining hopes for the success of the Geneva II process," Kerry said.

Aleppo's opposition governor, Abdel Rahman Dadam, said he never had much hope for the Geneva peace talks and wants direct action from the international community — though that prospect does not appear likely. "Aleppo is now the city of death," he said from his satellite office in Gazientep. "We need a no-fly zone.  At least that can prevent the barrels of death from raining down on civilians." 

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