Syrian refugees flee after camps are overrun by Isis but find themselves being shot at by Turkish border troops
A new wave of refugees has fled northern Syria for the Turkish border afterIslamic State opened fire on communities that had sheltered them, killing at least three people and uprooting thousands more.
The killings came as the terror group pushed back Syrian opposition forces who had edged to within five miles of Dabiq, a highly symbolic village that the group’s leaders believe is the pre-ordained epicentre of a clash that will herald an apocalyptic showdown.
The Isis advance appeared to catch the opposition off guard after 12 days of gains in the same area, which had seen it move closer to Dabiq than at any time in the past three years.
Units linked to the Free Syria Army, which led the offensive, said they never intended to seize the village, and were instead intending to push further across the north towards the town of Minbij, which lies roughly halfway between Isis’s two largest hubs in the area, al-Bab and Raqqa.
“We knew they would fight for Dabiq like crazy, so why bother attacking them there,” said a leader of an opposition unit whose forces had earlier this week seized the adjoining village of al-Rai. After being beaten back by Isis, he said: “It was never strategic for us. The east of their so-called caliphate is the target that matters.”
Up to 10 camps for internally displaced people were overrun by Isis on Thursday. Camp residents told the Guardian that members of the group had first approached them with loud speakers, urging them to move towards areas they controlled.
Some tried instead to cross the Turkish border but were shot at by Turkish troops. The camps were then abandoned en masse, with up to 5,000 people heading towards the main border point in the area, near the town of Azaz.
That crossing has remained closed for most of the year, with Turkey resisting pressure to allow earlier exoduses fleeing a three-month Russian air bombardment of eastern Aleppo and the northern countryside, all of which are in opposition control.
“The border is supposed to be a refuge, but it is a barrier to push us back into hell, said Abdul Aziz Rizk, who had fled the Iqdah camp. “All we want to do is get out of here.”
Azaz is already home to up to 30,000 refugees from earlier in the year, and Turkish officials have insisted they will continue to refuse permission to cross to all but urgent medical cases and essential family visits.
The International Rescue Committee said it would provide aid to the new arrivals. “We are seeing thousands of people arrive at the border, and more than a thousand families supported by the IRC at a displacement camp in Aleppo province have fled to Azaz and nearby villages,” said Turkey country director Frank McManus. “The IRC will be responding by providing clean water to as many of the new arrivals as possible.”
The Isis gains come as peace talks between the opposition and Syrian regime continue to grind on in Geneva. On the second day of the latest round of talks, the opposition said it was ready to share power in a transitional governing body with members of Assad’s government but not with the president himself or anyone else with blood on their hands.
The statement appeared designed to seize the initiative and emphasise a readiness for compromise after the Syrian government repeated that it would not go along with any transition – the central theme of the UN-brokered process.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has made clear he want to see concrete steps towards transition, which he calls “the mother of all issues”.
De Mistura told reporters there was disappointment and frustration that efforts to improve humanitarian access to besieged areas had made so little progress since the start of the partial ceasefire six weeks ago. Douma, Daraya and Harasta – all near Damascus – remained inaccessible to aid workers.
Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the only way to end the five-year war was for all parties to hold talks, adopt a new constitution and hold early elections.