SEMELKA, Syria (AP) – 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 of Syria’s central government to the region, where Kurdish administrators have had virtual self-rule for years.
The rush to leave reflected the sudden and dramatic nosedive of the aspirations of Syria’s Kurdish minority for autonomy. The Kurdish-led administration itself invited Syrian government troops to the area to defend against the Turkish assault after the U.S. abandoned them and began pulling its soldiers out.
Foreigners who had entered “Rojava” -as the Kurds call their region- now woke up to uncertainty over who would be in charge. If back with Damascus in control, they would effectively be in the country illegally.
The departing foreigners were the main activity at the Semelka crossing Monday. The truck lane of the usually bustling commercial gateway was empty – only a single pick-up with sheep in the back stood in the parking lot. Dozens of Syrians waited to cross into Iraq.
Though few organizations 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 government’s security web.
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 United States 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.
But 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.
“There are tens of thousands of people on the run and we have no way of getting to them. We’ve had to pull our international staff out of northeast Syria. We just cannot effectively operate with the heavy shelling, roads closing, and the various and constantly changing armed actors in the areas where we are working.”
The U.S-based group warned that the humanitarian crisis is set to worsen. Already the fighting has displaced nearly 130,000 Syrians.
An international aid worker at the border crossing Monday said nearly all 250 foreign aid workers in northeast Syria, operating with dozens of groups, were leaving. De-miners also pulled out. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity because most organizations were not making their moves public.
The Kurdish-led administration tried to stem the flight and ease the worries. It said in a statement that the agreement to bring in Syrian forces was purely military and all administration will operate as usual, including at the border.
But a sense of uncertainty reigned. Already, government troops were more visible in two main cities.
Few Syrians were at the border. Only those with residency elsewhere or permits to visit Iraq can get out.
“I’m very afraid, and I think many people will be killed,” said 50-year old Sheikha Hami, an elementary school teacher leaving with her two children to stay with her sister in Iraq.
Her children feared the airstrikes, but she feared the Kurds’ old and new allies.
“I think the (Syrian) regime is like America,” she said. “I don’t believe either. I can’t trust either.”
Barzan Azem, a 40-year old Kurdish lawyer who holds a Dutch passport, was leaving with his three daughters. He and his wife returned to Qamishli in Rojava five years ago because they thought it was safe. Now, he is taking the girls back to Amsterdam, then he will return to rejoin his wife, a journalist, who decided to stay to cover the developments.
There were already signs the Syrian government was expanding its power in Qamishli, he said, and seeking to take positions of Kurdish security forces.
“It is very bad,” he said. Expressing his frustration with the abandonment of the Kurds, he said with tears in his eyes: “I cannot find a word ugly enough to describe what the Americans and the Europeans are doing with this war.”
“I will drop my kids in Amsterdam and come back. Yes, I want to fight.
Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report from Beirut.