What it’s like on the ground helping Syrians fleeing Idlib

Free Burma Rangers faith group helps hundreds of families who fled fighting in Idlib

Members of the Free Burma Rangers provide aid to Syrians near Manbj in February 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY FREE BURMA RANGERS)
Members of the Free Burma Rangers provide aid to Syrians near Manbj in February 2020
As hundreds of thousands fled fighting in northern Syria between the Syrian regime and extremist groups, a small faith-based group stepped in to provide basic essentials to some of those in need.
The Free Burma Rangers had seen scenes like this before over the years helping people in Iraq and Syria. Last year they were in eastern Syria when Turkey attacked the partly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Now they are near Manbij, west of the Euphrates in Syria helping people from Idlib.
“The US should help the SDF establish a humanitarian corridor from Idlib to the SDF region, and that would save lives and restore trust in the US in the region,” saids Dave Eubank, a leader of the Free Burma Rangers. The group takes its name from Myanmar, where it also provides aid. Currently the US is partnered with the SDF in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and the US has supported Turkey’s role in Idlib where Turkish forces were recently killed by Russian-backed Syrian-regime shelling. Northern Syria is a complex place with numerous groups and sides. There are Russian flags, Syrian flags, the SDF, Turkish troops, Syrian rebels, Americans, remnants of Islamic State and al-Qaeda and other groups. For Eubank and his colleagues like Paul Curtis Bradley, the main issue is to help civilians.
People who fled Idlib generally fled north toward the Turkish border. But Turkey isn’t letting in more refugees. It already hosts almost four million Syrians. So some of the displaced, often people who have seen nine years of war in Syria, fled via Turkish-controlled areas around al-Bab and Jarabulus to Manbij. For the civilians it can be more than a day of driving along a circuitous route that takes them north of the Syrian-regime controlled area of Aleppo past many checkpoints 160 km. to Manbij.
Manbij is a diverse city with Kurds and Arabs and other groups. The city was held by ISIS for two years and liberated in August 2014 by the SDF. It has, however, been a center of controversy because Turkey has threatened to invade the city. Turkey claims the SDF is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which it views as “terrorists.” But, the SDF is the main fighting force against ISIS in Syria and US partners. Since October, when the US withdrew from areas around Manbij and parts of northern Syria, the Russians and Syrian regime have sent small forces to control these areas.
Yet much has remained the same on the ground. The members of Free Burma Rangers who have made more than 15 trips to Syria are well known and knowledgeable about the challenges in this area, including the overlapping forces that exert control. They are respected for giving aid to all those they come across, including families who fled ISIS in February 2019, helping repair a church in Raqqa and aiding the wounded in fighting in October near Tal Tamer. Zau Seng, an FBR member, was killed in November by mortars fired from Turkish-backed Syrian positions.
According to the volunteers, about a thousand people from Idlib have come to fields around Manbij. They are camped in freezing conditions and there was snow on the ground. They had to pay and bribe their way to get through checkpoints in areas controlled by rebel groups. Local authorities in Manbij expect 5,000 more may come. They arrive in groups of 10 or 20 in family groups. “This is a trickle that is expected to turn into a much bigger flow,” Eubank says.
The people from Idlib are sleeping in abandoned houses and tents now. The SDF is helping build a camp 27 km. south of Manbij for the Idlib victims. The people are fleeing not just the Syrian regime offensive and fighting, but they also say they have had to live under extremist groups in Idlib over the last years. Idlib is mostly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group once with al-Qaeda. The Rangers say the civilians do not support the extremist groups in Idlib. They are trapped in the middle of the fighting, victims of extremists and of the Syrian regime.
From February 8-11, the FBR and the Manbij Civil Council visited and provided relief to 77 families, according to a statement. The volunteers provided flour, potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, cooking oil and other necessities as well as diapers and baby formula.
The conditions of the displaced people was sometimes desperate. In one case, the children were barefoot in the cold; the FBR helped get them socks and shoes. The FBR interviewed and recorded details about all the people and sites they aided. The civilians said they had to pay from $100-$500 to cross all the Syrian opposition checkpoints between Idlib and Manbij. They were sometimes detained and forced to pay. The Syrian rebels are ostensibly under a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army in those area between al-Bab and the Syrian regime checkpoint near Manbij. But the SNA is a collection of often undisciplined groups that sometimes fight each other and are known for human rights abuses.
THE FBR’S BRADLEY says overall the group helped 150 families and that they have been welcomed warmly wherever they have gone, important considering that eastern Syria is a tense and complex area. Turkish and Syrian rebel shelling near Tel Tamer recently killed several Christians from a local defense force linked to the SDF. In addition pro-Syrian regime protesters shot at a US patrol near Qamishli. There are Russian helicopters buzzing the road and Turkish drones. “We’re a small organization among elephants,” Bradley says.
There is a larger problem in eastern Syria as well. The UN and large charities are not helping enough. There are still 200,000 displaced people, many of them Kurds, who fled the Turkish invasion in October. There are also more than 40,000 members of former ISIS families stuck in a camp near al-Hol. The UN and others have done little, seeking to work via the Syrian regime or Turkey and not the US-backed SDF.
The US has done almost nothing to facilitate aid or IDPs in eastern Syria, preferring only to fight ISIS. This leaves civilians vulnerable and means groups like FBR are needed to fill the gaps.
One thing the FBR members say is that many locals are disappointed the US left quickly in October. They felt betrayed and abandoned. Now they live under a complex layering of groups, including the SDF, the Syrian regime and the Russians.
Although many have views sympathetic to the US, they find it perplexing the US left an area that was peaceful and successfully recovering from ISIS. For the thousands now fleeing Idlib, the chance to live in relatively calm areas of eastern Syria rather than under the fighting between the Syrian regime and Turkish-backed groups and extremists, is a welcome opportunity. Eubank thinks the US could do more to facilitate this or open a corridor for those fleeing. “It would be a positive first response to the disaster in Idlib,” he says.