ROJAVA, SYRIA— As fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces move on Raqqa, the Islamic State's defacto capital, many residents of the northern Syrian city and nearby villages are fleeing their homes. In Ras al-Ayn, just to the northeast, officials are preparing for a flood of refugees.
The lines of cars are long as people wait tensely, trying to escape Raqqa where international airstrikes rain down on Islamic State targets. Civilians here are heading north in search of refuge in Kurdish-held areas.
Ras al-Ayn is in that zone of relative safety, although security forces here are on alert for IS fighters trying to hide among the refugees.
One highway connects Raqqa with such towns as Ras al-Ayn, and people who are fleeing IS-controlled territory pass through. Kurdish security has set up checkpoints to screen those coming in.
“We will ask everyone who comes to Ras al-Ayn to have someone sponsor them so that we can identify each person. We will have the information of where these people are going to stay," said Husein Hamid, a security officer from Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria controlled by the Kurds.
"We are serious about the security of Ras al-Ayn, that is why we will make sure we know about everyone who comes here,” he said.
For those who do make it through, authorities and NGO's are getting ready to help them.
“This area is about 120 hectares, and we are preparing eight hectares of it to house the displaced people. We are setting up close to 4,000 tents in this area alone,” Suleiman Abdul-Aziz, with the Rojava Organization for Human Aid.
Humanitarian organizations in the region expect that during the operation to recapture Raqqa, more than 300,000 people will flee to Ras al-Ayn and other towns nearby. Aid workers on the scene say they are not sure if the local administration has enough resources to handle the refugee crisis, however, and they are urging international organizations to help.
"It is wintertime and because of the lack of tents, we are asking all the organizations to help us. There are thousands of people fleeing from ISIS areas and we cannot handle this on our own," said Abdul-Aziz.
As the US-led coalition and Russia step up the air war against IS in Raqqa, local authorities say they realize this is just the beginning.