Bombardment of Aleppo leaves civilians in firing line
Concerns are rising that closure of the border with Turkey will halt flow of aid into Syria
Syrians fleeing the northern embattled city of Aleppo wait for tents in Bab-Al Salam, near the Turkish border crossing. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Derek O’Rourke, security adviser for the Middle East for the aid agency Goal: “The amount of vulnerable people pouring into our area from the east is perhaps doubling already. If we can get our aid in, we’ll reach these people. But who is going to protect them?”
The arrival of 40,000 refugees at the Turkish border north of Aleppo is a sign of how dramatically the dynamic of the conflict has shifted since Russia intervened in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad last September. Since then, Assad’s forces have made steady gains across northwestern Syria. Their advance has been gathering pace since early January, and Syrian government forces now look poised to fully encircle rebel-held eastern Aleppo city.
“All of that section will become besieged,” says Derek O’Rourke, security adviser for the Middle East for the aid agency Goal, which runs the largest humanitarian network in the west of the country. “A favoured tactic of the Syrian government is ‘surround, besiege and starve’. Madaya was a case in point.”
There are an estimated 350,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo, down from two million before the war. How many of those 350,000 will attempt to flee before the city is closed off by Assad’s forces is a question that is preoccupying aid agencies on the ground.
The most likely destination for those fleeing Aleppo is Idlib province farther west, where Goal runs the water and industrial baking infrastructure for a population of half a million by paying municipal workers and providing fuel and maintenance supplies to keep facilities in operation. It also provides food and shelter for the internally-displaced.
“The amount of vulnerable people pouring into our area from the east is perhaps doubling already. If we can get our aid in, we’ll reach these people. But who is going to protect them?” says O’Rourke, who is based in Antakya, on the Turkish side of the border. “Neither the Syrian nor the Russian airforce has any qualms about hitting IDP [internally displaced person] camps. They have been hitting them regularly.”
Since last Thursday, however, when Syrian government forces cut off the corridor that connects Aleppo to the Bab al-Salam crossing, the border has been closed by the Turks. That has left 40,000 Syrians camped on the Syrian side and is preventing any aid from entering.
Bab al-Hawa is a bottleneck at the best of times, O’Rourke says, pointing out that Goal alone sends in 500 lorries a month. Turkish-registered trucks must unload their cargo in No Man’s Land, known as Point Zero, and transfer it to Syrian vehicles in order to proceed south. But with Bab al-Hawa now offering the only aid route into Syria, the delays are likely to worsen. In addition, Russian jets have in recent weeks been bombing areas close to the border crossings; two weeks ago an air strike came within a kilometre of Bab al-Hawa crossing.
In Aleppo, meanwhile, the situation is growing more alarming by the day. No fuel has entered the city for the past week. “Fuel prices have rocketed as a result, and pretty soon there will be no fuel at all. That’s just the beginning of a siege,” says O’Rourke. “Things start to run out. Food will become extremely expensive, drinking water will become expensive.
“People in Aleppo have seen what happens in the other besieged parts of the country. It’s pure starvation. Months pass. It happened in Homs, it happened in Madaya, it happened in Deir ez-Zor, and in certain suburbs of Damascus. People starve unless they have money to pay exorbitant prices.”
Perhaps not unrelated to the latest Assad/Russian offensive is the latest round of peace talks taking place in Switzerland. “A year ago, Damascus would have come into these talks with its tail between its legs. They were on the back foot, they were losing territory hand over fist both to Islamic State and the opposition,” says O’Rourke.
“Now they’ve got the wind behind them. They’re going to make sure that every time they convene at the talks, they’ve got more territory to bargain with.”