Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes and
Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have launched a major
offensive in the countryside around Aleppo, which has been divided
between government and rebel control for years.
The assault to surround Aleppo, once Syria's biggest city with 2
million people, amounts to one of the most important shifts of
momentum in the five year civil war that has killed 250,000 people
and already driven 11 million from their homes.
The United Nations is worried the government advance could cut off
the last link for civilians in rebel-held parts of Aleppo with the
main Turkish border crossing, which has long served as the lifeline
for insurgent-controlled territory.
"It would leave up to 300,000 people, still residing in the city,
cut off from humanitarian aid unless cross-line access could be
negotiated," the United Nations Office for Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs said in an urgent bulletin.
If government advances around the city continue, it said, "local
councils in the city estimate that some 100,000 – 150,000 civilians
Turkey, already home to 2.5 million Syrians, the world's biggest
refugee population, has so far kept its frontier closed to the
latest wave of displaced, making it more difficult to reach them
with urgently needed aid. The United Nations urged Ankara on Tuesday
to open the border and has called on other countries to assist
Turkey with aid.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said some 70,000 Syrian
refugees could reach the Turkish border if the military campaign
continues unabated, and Turkey would not shut its gates to them.
The U.N. World Food Programme said in a statement it had begun food
distribution in the Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border for
the new wave of displaced people.
“The situation is quite volatile and fluid in northern Aleppo with
families on the move seeking safety,” said Jakob Kern, WFP’s country
director in Syria.
“We are extremely concerned as access and supply routes from the
north to eastern Aleppo city and surrounding areas are now cut off,
but we are making every effort to get enough food in place for all
those in need, bringing it in through the remaining open border
crossing point from Turkey.”
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The Russian-backed government assault around Aleppo, as well as
advances further south, helped torpedo the first peace talks for
nearly two years, which collapsed last week before they got under
way in earnest.
Moscow turned the momentum in the war in favor of its ally President
Bashar al-Assad when it joined the conflict four months ago with a
campaign of air strikes against his enemies, many of whom are
supported by Arab states, Turkey and the West.
German chancellor Angela Merkel accused Russia this week of bombing
civilians, against a U.N. Security Council resolution Moscow signed
up to in December. Russia says it is targeting only Islamist
militants. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no
credible evidence of civilian deaths.
The complex multi-sided civil war has drawn in outside powers, with
the United States leading a separate campaign of air strikes against
Islamic State militants who control eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
A suicide bomber drove his car into a police officers' club in a
residential quarter in central Damascus, blowing himself up and
killing several people, a Syrian interior ministry statement said.
(Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa
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