Monday 11 December 2017

Thousands flee as Aleppo teeters

A decisive battle looms after Assad's troops, backed by Russia, encircle Syria's second city while peace talks break up acrimoniously in Geneva, writes Louisa Loveluck

SHELTER FROM THE STORM OF WAR: A girl and her brothers, who fled the violence from the Isil-controlled area of al-Bab around Aleppo with their families, wait as they are stuck in the small Syrian village of Akda to cross into Turkey last week. Turkey’s border guards prevented the displaced people from approaching their border, activists said. Photo: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
SHELTER FROM THE STORM OF WAR: A girl and her brothers, who fled the violence from the Isil-controlled area of al-Bab around Aleppo with their families, wait as they are stuck in the small Syrian village of Akda to cross into Turkey last week. Turkey’s border guards prevented the displaced people from approaching their border, activists said. Photo: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Louisa Loveluck

Russian and Syrian government forces yesterday intensified an assault on rebel-held areas around the Syrian city of Aleppo that has prompted tens of thousands to flee to the Turkish border to seek refuge.

Up to 70,000 Syrians were heading for Turkey last night threatening to send a new wave of migrants into Europe as Syria's civil war intensified.

The latest exodus came as Syrian regime forces advanced on the strategically vital opposition stronghold of Aleppo, closing in on a major victory with the help of sustained Russian air strikes on rebel positions.

With an estimated 35,000 new refugees already gathering at Syria's Bab al-Salam crossing with Turkey, European foreign ministers and officials held emergency talks in Amsterdam with their Turkish counterparts to draw up a plan to deal with the crisis.

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, warned of the "very real prospect that there will be another huge influx of refugees", precipitated by what he called "indiscriminate" Russian bombing around Aleppo.

However last night Turkey had resisted EU pressure to open the border-crossing for the refugees. The Bab al-Salam crossing has remained open until now and has proved to be a key entry point for foreign fighters flocking to join the war.

Suleyman Tapsiz, the governor of the Kilis border province, said a wave of at least 70,000 refugee was "a possibility" as the noose tightened around Aleppo, where an estimated 350,000 rebels and civilians are trapped.

New arrivals are currently being accommodated "in eight camps on the Syrian side of the border," Mr Tapsiz said, adding that in Turkey's view there was "no need for now" to transfer them to Turkey which has already absorbed more than two million.

"Our doors are not closed, but at the moment there is no need to host such people inside our borders," he said.

Johannes Hahn, a European commissioner, yesterday warned Turkey that it needed to cut dramatically the number of migrants reaching Greece within weeks or the pressure for more border closures and fences will grow.

Frustrated that refugees continue to stream into Greece despite a 3bn deal between Ankara and Brussels to slow down the flows, Mr Hahn said Turkey must show results by the time EU leaders meet later this month.

But next month is a lifetime away for the refugees standing in the pouring rain on Syria's border with Turkey. The stories of the individuals are the stuff of heartbreak. Last night 29-year-old Ali begged border guards to allow his disabled mother to cross to safety. He said he had lost a seventh member of his family to the bitter war that morning. Mahmoud, his cousin, died after picking up what he thought was a child's toy. In fact, it was cluster bomb, the force of which ripped through his legs.

"I would give everything I had just to get my family out," said Ali, who did not wish to give his surname.

"Not just money, but my life if I had to. But no one wants either. I can't do anything for them."

Ali stood on the no-man's-land between the two countries which stretches less than a mile, but for families waiting on the Turkish side, it may as well be another world.

Checkpoints and hastily erected fences are keeping out tens of thousands of refugees fleeing bombardment and siege in northern Syria.

The border is Ground Zero for Syria's refugee crisis. Turkish authorities said at least 35,000 people were camped out at the Bab al-Salam crossing.

Many of those families were among the poorest in Syria, having held out through five years of bitter civil war without the funds to escape. Last week, they were left with no choice as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad cut the rebel supply line into Aleppo city.

Yesterday many of northern Syria's remaining rebel-held areas were emptying of civilians. At the crossing point refugees now shelter in scrubland, where night-time temperatures drop below freezing.

"It's the worst we have seen in this war," said Mustafa Mahmoud, the director of a cross-border aid group. "If the regime continues its military operations, there will be nothing left."

Sitting in his car with his four children just inside Turkey, Ahmet Sadul, 43, was hoping to get back into Syria to look for relations from his hometown of Azaz.

"Now there are thousands of people from Azaz all waiting on the other side. They escaped from the Russians.

"Many people have left Aleppo. But still there are many civilians there. If Russia is successful, we are all dead."

The regime assault unfolding on the Syrian side of the border has the potential to change the course of the five-year war, and the men gathered in the border town of Kilis know it. Faces are weary, all eyes trained on the border gates and, beyond, on the glimpses of their homeland that sporadically emerge through the dark clouds.

Taking full control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the civil war erupted five years ago, would be a huge strategic prize for Assad's government in a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes. Syria's war has become a staging ground for the global rivalries, with Russia, Iran and Hizbollah lining up behind the regime while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the West back the rebels.

Opposition forces still in east Aleppo have been without power, fuel, water and food for several weeks. Aid workers now fear the city could soon fall under a full government siege.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said yesterday that his country would keep its "open border policy" for refugees, but did not indicate when Syrians waiting at the frontier could cross.

According to health workers, Turkish control of the border was stricter this week than they had ever known it. Even cancer patients, previously subject to a special waiver, had been prevented from crossing.

Even the well-worn smuggling routes have been all but impossible to access. Local residents said the price of crossing the border had rocketed in recent days to as much as €1,500. By contrast, the perilous boat journey to Europe usually costs half that.

Last week, Turkish authorities shot a 12 year old girl in the head as she crossed over with her family. Syrians said they believed border guards were now under instructions to shoot at anyone attempting the illegal journey.

Last night, Amnesty International called on the Turkish authorities to reopen its border, saying Ankara "must not close its doors to people in desperate need of safety".

The group says attacks on civilians have intensified in the five months since Russia waded into the war.

Moscow's bombing raids have hit mosques, markets and schools. They have also hit camps for displaced people, such as the ones the tens of thousands of Syrians at Bab al-Salam are expected to be funnelled into.

"Are they waiting for people to be blown to pieces?" asked a Syrian nurse whose family was stranded among the Bab al-Salam scrubland. "Nowhere in Syria is safe now."

Russian air strikes, which started in September, initially shored up Mr Assad's north-western heartlands and then ground down rebel forces on three fronts across the country.

Their impact, along with offensives from regime troops and their Iranian and Hizbollah allies helped tip the balance in favour of an emboldened Assad. Walid al-Moualem, Syria's foreign minister, said yesterday that Damascus would resist anyone who launched a ground incursion into its territory.

"Those who do so will return to their countries in coffins," he said, adding that no ceasefire would be possible unless borders were sealed.

Western donors last week pledged pounds €10bn to alleviate Syria's refugee crisis with the British government promising that a million more Syrian children would receive an education in neighbouring countries by the end of next year - a major concern of aid agencies.

Planned reforms are also intended to open up one million jobs for refugees and local people.

But the donors' focus on creating better lives for those who leave Syria underscored the fact that few believe this war will end any time soon. The blitz on Aleppo caused the apparent collapse of the Syrian peace talks last week, before they had even started.

The United Nations has officially postponed those talks until February 25 and is now engaged in a desperate scramble to convince opposition representatives to stay with the process.

But back in Kilis, few Syrians had faith that international powers were doing anything other than driving their country to further ruin.

"If the world had left Syria alone, it would have taken just two months for the regime to fall. But instead they helped to destroy the country."

Aleppo would be the biggest strategic prize in years for the Assad government . The severing of the rebels' Aleppo supply line was made possible by intense Russian air strikes.

Opposition fighters in the north of the province said their lines had buckled under the force of "hundreds" of bombing raids.

Moscow intervened militarily in Syria's war at the end of September. Its air strikes first shored up Mr Assad's north-western heartlands and then ground down rebel offensives on three fronts across the country, tipping the balance of power in favour of the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said yesterday that regime troops had retaken a town at the doorstep of Daraa, the contested city between Damascus and the Jordanian border which held some of the first protests against Mr Assad in early 2011.

Syria's official news agency says the offensive on Atman, north of Daraa, scattered rebel forces - which it labels terrorists.

The Syrian Observatory said troops had advanced under the cover of heavy artillery bombardment and air power.

Nato's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that Russian airstrikes against opposition forces were "undermining efforts to find a political solution to the conflict".


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