Another 1.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, while an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other essentials, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassan. A $180 million emergency response plan is only half-funded, he added.
Temperatures during the winter months can drop below freezing in northern Syria, and it often rains heavily. Most houses are designed to deal with the scorching summers, but are not well insulated against the cold.
Neighboring Turkey has already taken in 80,000 refugees in overflowing camps and for weeks had to temporarily close its borders to new refugees.
At the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, more than 5,000 Syrians are camped out in hangars once used by customs officials to inspect trucks — structures without walls, running water or electricity.
"When winter comes, how will I keep them warm?" asked Fatima Abdallah, gesturing worriedly at her tiny newborn twins as she sat on the concrete floor. Turkey has started admitting a few hundred Syrians at a time, but it's unclear if everyone will be housed in the camps by the time the cold weather sets in.
While food supplies seem to be holding steady, the biggest challenge will be staying warm and preparing food. The parts of the country outside government control have to rely on smuggled supplies of gasoline and heating oil, which have already tripled in price.
Smugglers drive to government-controlled areas, usually to the east, load up their cars with butane tanks and jerry cans of gasoline and drive them back to the rebel-controlled areas.
"There are already shortages of kerosene used to heat homes and there is also a shortage of fuel and cooking gas. And when winter hits, the prices will go up for everything," said Marixie Mercado of UNICEF, noting that the displaced tend to live in public buildings like schools or stadiums that cannot easily be heated.
Many also have taken refuge in construction sites or half-built houses without windows, which will offer little protection against the country's wet winters.
UNICEF is stockpiling supplies, including baby blankets and thermal underwear for children, as well as stoves to heat schools — assuming the fuel is available.
"People are cutting down trees to get wood," said Abu Mustafa, relying on wood-burning stoves to cook as gas supplies have run out. "We cut off a bunch of dead branches in our orchards and collected them, but the next time we went to our fields to pick them up, someone had stolen them. People are getting desperate."
International agencies are working with local partners, particularly the Syrian Red Crescent to distribute food and supplies around the country, said Ben Parker of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Red Crescent can cross the lines of the conflict, but even then, their efforts have been stymied by the proliferating checkpoints and rising violence.
"It will be a bitter winter," Parker warned.
Extremists showing up on front lines in Syria
TEL RIFAAT, Syria — The bearded gunmen who surrounded the car full of foreign journalists in a northern Syrian village were clearly not Syrians. A heavyset man in a brown gown stepped forward, announced he was Iraqi and fingered through the American passport he had confiscated.
"We know all American journalists are spies. Now tell us what you are doing here and who you are spying for," he said in English before going on to accuse the U.S. of the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I really want to cut your head off right now," he added, telling his men, many of whom appeared to have North African accents, that this American kills Muslims.
With the intervention of nearby villagers, the confrontation eventually was defused. But it underscored the unpredictable element that foreign fighters bring to the Syrian conflict.
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