Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed government advance on Aleppo have remained stranded near the Turkish border over the last few days, with no sign that the authorities in Ankara will respond to mounting international pressure to allow in more refugees uprooted by the escalating war.
Airstrikes targeted villages between Syria’s largest city and the border crossing of Bab al-Salameh while convoys of aid supplies and ambulances entered from Turkey – reinforcing the impression that the Turks plan to create a border buffer zone that could in time become a safe haven for civilians.
Bashar Assad’s government made clear, however, that it was in no mood to contemplate a ceasefire – the focus of faltering US diplomatic efforts with Russia.
“Turkey has reached the end of its capacity to absorb [refugees],” Numan Kurtulmuş, the deputy prime minister, told CNN-Turk. “But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings and Turkey will … watch the massacre like the rest of the world, or we will open our borders. At the moment, we are admitting some, and are trying to keep others there [in Syria] by providing them with every kind of humanitarian support,” Kurtulmuş added. “We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths.”
Pope Francis intervened on Sunday with a plea for aid to Syrians fleeing the five-year war. “I am following with strong concern the dramatic fate of the civilian population caught up in the violent combat in Syria and forced to abandon everything to flee the horrors of the war,” Francis told a crowd in St Peter’s Square.
Earlier, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, declared that Turkey had a moral and legal duty to provide protection to the people waiting at their borders. “It is unquestionable that people coming from inside Syria are … in need of international protection,” she said.
Kurtulmuş estimated that “in the worst-case scenario” as many as 1 million more refugees could flee Aleppo and surrounding areas. Turkey is already sheltering more than 2.5 million Syrians, possibly the world’s largest refugee population.
In the last few days some 70,000 Syrians have fled to the border from intensifying airstrikes and ground attacks in northern Aleppo province. Opposition sources said on Sunday that Syrian ground troops backed by Russian planes were engaged in intense fighting with rebel forces around the village of Ratyan and surrounding areas north of Aleppo city.
The army has almost fully encircled Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial centre, preparing the way for a blockade that will probably mean further massive refugee flows. The main supply line to the Turkish border has already been cut and many residents are reportedly looking to leave, anticipating severe shortages in coming days.
Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war are making no discernible progress. Days after the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, the official mood in Damascus is defiant and uncompromising.
Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said that advances by government forces suggested the war was nearing its end. “I can say from the achievement of our armed forces that … we are now on track to end the conflict,” he told reporters on Saturday. “Like it or not, our battlefield achievements indicate that we are headed towards the end of the crisis.”
A ceasefire could only be agreed once the country’s borders with Turkey and Jordan were under government control, he added.
Last week, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said that “the next few days” would determine “whether or not people are serious” about a ceasefire, humanitarian access to areas besieged by fighting and the revival of the UN-brokered proximity talks, which were suspended last week after just three days.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates followed Saudi Arabia, a key supporter of the Syrian opposition, in announcing that it would send ground troops to Syria to fight Isis. But the reaction from Damascus was scornful. Foreign soldiers who enter Syria without government approval would “return home in wooden coffins”, Muallem warned. “Any ground intervention in Syria … will be considered an aggression that should be resisted by every Syrian citizen.”
The offers of military aid to fight Isis by the Gulf states are likely to be discussed in margins of a Nato meeting in Brussels this week. Analysts believe these are partly intended to stiffen US resolve to fight and not to cooperate too closely with Russia as long as it is openly backing Assad.
Iran also criticised Saudi Arabia over its offer to deploy forces to Syria. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Mohammad Ali Jafari, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, as saying that he did not think the Saudis were “brave enough” to send ground troops. “They talk big,” Jafari said. “But even if it happens, it won’t be bad because they would be definitely defeated.”
This article originally appeared in The Guardian