BARDARASH — Ten days before crossing the Iraqi border, 37-year-old Mahmoud Issa was giving English classes at a school in the Kurdish and Arab village Ras al-Ayn, in northeastern Syria. Today, he's eating rice doused in tomato sauce from a plastic box under a hanger belonging to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Iraqi armed forces, near a village lost in the charred, meandering hills between Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, Turkish bombs have begun falling nearby and radical Muslim groups on Ankara's payroll have crossed the border. The images of the abuse, humiliation and executions they inflict have spread terror throughout the region. The Syrian regime has begun its retreat to the northeast.
Discarded along with about 300,000 other Syrians in the northeast, Mahmoud Issa wandered from town to town before deciding what to do: "In Syria, with the regime, plus the Turks and ISIS all taking advantage of the current situation, nothing is good anymore…" The only option left is the uncertain, often dangerous route of exile. He's seen his country close in on him like a trap — and on his wife and children, who are younger than the war itself. They had no choice but to leave.
And so the English teacher made his way towards the border, through the steppes where nothing grows from the earth except heavy columns of black smoke that mark the clandestine refineries of petrol traffickers, towards the villages with low-lying houses and the lost roads where every night, darkness is an accomplice to smugglers, armed shadows, and every type of killer.
In Syria, nothing is good anymore.
Like hundreds of other refugees who have arrived at this camp in Bardarash, Iraq, Mahmoud Issa had to put the fate of his family in the hands of the lords of the troubled border: Bedouins from the Shammar tribe, a group formerly known for their camel breeding. They're now renowned smugglers who, for $750 (675 euros), brought the teacher's family via mule to the Peshmerga on the Iraqi side. The Kurdish fighters took them in along with dozens of other Kurdish Syrian refugee families.
That night, approximately 1,000 people — men, women and children — crossed the border. Two days later, on Oct. 22, they were close to 1,300, bringing the number of Syrian refugees passing into Iraqi Kurdistan to 7,100 in one week, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Kurdish protesters in London on Oct. 20 — Photo: Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/ZUMA
"In 2013, I already had to flee when al-Nostra [the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda] took control of Ras al-Ayn. We came back when the comrades chased them away," recalls Mahmoud. The "comrades" are the Kurdish fighters in Syria, a name that evokes a distant Marxist-Leninist period in their movement. "The gangs sent against us by Turkey aren't any different from al-Nostra," he says. "But this time, we don't know if they can be pushed back by our forces…"
Same beards, same radical Muslim slogans, same brutality, same taste for humiliations. Their abuse and terror are broadcast on social media almost daily. This new enemy looks a lot like the last one. But now it's backed by the aviation, artillery and intelligence of a NATO army: The Turkish Republic.
"Every night, the number of people crossing the border grows thanks to smugglers," says Abdulwahab Walid Salim, an employee of Barzani, a charitable humanitarian organization linked to the Iraqi Kurdish authorities that is at the forefront of the beginning of this Syrian Kurdish exile.
Same beards, same radical Muslim slogans, same brutality, same taste for humiliations.
"The Turkish intervention, the regime's return, the fear of armed radical Muslim groups supported by Turkey … They don't see any other option except exile," he adds in perfect French, thanks to 25 years of working with French NGOs in the region.
Last night, on the Peshmerga side, these humanitarians took in a panicked family. During their midnight mule ride over the border, an infant fell from its mother's arms along a bumpy part of the road. A few hours later, the baby's cries allowed a search team to find it in the dark night.
Since 2014 and the population displacement due to the war against ISIS, the area has been swarming with stray dogs, abandoned by fleeing families, farmers and sheep breeders. The hanger where today's Syrian refugees are having lunch dates back to the very same war — originally set up by the UNHCR, the facility is back in service.
And this is only the beginning of a crisis on track to intensify. "On the Syrian side, their families are waiting for news, to know how things are over here before coming to join," says Abdulwahab Walid Salim. "I don't see what would stop this movement of the population."
It's the end of Kurds in Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), predominantly Kurd, are nonetheless trying. For them, limiting the influx of refugees is vital and they intend to stop it by force, blocking access to the border as much as possible. In times of war, every adult that leaves means the loss of one more potential fighter to help face the adversaries. Every child that crosses to the other side is one less Kurd in the region's demography.
For Damascus, reducing the Kurdish presence in the Syrian northeast is an old strategic goal that dates to the 1970s, brought about by the installation of Arab populations as well as oppressive administrative measures that made the many Kurds in the region outcasts in the Syrian Arab Republic. The goal was never totally achieved — but it may happen soon, the Syrian Kurds fear.
"It's the end of Kurds in Syria," stated a refugee from Ras al-Ayn who wished to remain anonymous. The city is included in the "safety zone" that Turkey wanted according to the terms of the temporary, vaguely-defined ceasefire established during U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence's Oct. 17 visit to Ankara. But Oct. 21, Ras al-Ayn was evacuated by the Kurdish forces. Indeed, it's precisely because of this agreement that many decided to flee.
For Mahmoud Issa, who crossed the border with a dozen family members, Turkey has begun an irreversible demographic shift. "The Turks have entered two cities and there are over 300,000 people leaving. They're not going to stop there … Their goal is to empty Syria of its Kurds. Arabs will go back to the cities that they've taken. But for us, that's now impossible."
See more from World Affairs here