ONCUPINAR, Turkey/ BEIRUT, Feb 6( Reuters) – Russian and Syrian government forces on Saturday intensified an attack on rebel-held regions around the Syrian city of Aleppo that has inspired tens of thousands to take refuge across the border in Turkey.
The assault around Aleppo, which aid employees have said could soon fall to government forces, helped to torpedo Syrian peace talks in Geneva this week. Russia’s intervention has tip-off the balance of the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, reversing gains the rebels induced last year.
Any hopes of a ceasefire were stifled by Assad’s foreign minister, who said it would be all but impossible to stop the fighting while rebels were able to pass freely across the borders with Turkey and Jordan.
Taking full control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the civil war erupted five years ago, would be a huge strategic award for Assad’s government in a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes.
Advances by the Syrian army and allied militias, including Iranian fighters, are threatening to cut off rebel-held zones of the city, still home to around 350,000 people, while more than a million live in government-controlled areas.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, foreign minister of Turkey, which has already taken in 2.5 million Syrians, told up to 55,000 were now fleeing to the frontier.
Cavusoglu said the border was open, but at the Oncupinar crossing near the Turkish city of Kilis, which has been largely shut for nearly a year, refugees were being shepherded into camps on the Syrian side.
The local governor, Suleyman Tapsiz, told around 35,000 Syrians had reached Oncupinar in the space of 48 hours.
“Our doorways are not closed, but at the moment there is no need to host such people inside our borders, ” he said.
A Reuters reporter at Oncupinar could hear occasional shelling and saw several Turkish ambulances cross the border.
Meanwhile, on the Turkish side, dozens of Syrian refugees who had already attained it to Turkey queued up to beg the authorities to allow their relatives in, or to cross the border in the hope of bringing them back.
Sitting in his vehicle with his four children only inside Turkey, Ahmet Sadul, 43, was hoping to get back into Syria to look for relatives from his hometown of Azaz.
“Now there are thousands of people from Azaz all waiting on the other side. They escaped from the Russians. I want to go and get my relatives. They are bombing Syrians all the time.”
“Many people have left Aleppo. But still there are many civilians there. If Russia is successful, we are all dead.”
Russia denies targeting civilians and says its actions are aimed at shoring up Syria’s legitimate government and combating terrorism. The West and Turkey, which want Assad to step down, accuse Moscow of using indiscriminate force.
But Syria has been emboldened by Russia’s intervention. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a press conference on Saturday that Damascus would defy anyone who launched a ground incursion into its territory.
“Those( who do so) will return to their countries in coffins, ” he told, adding that no ceasefire would be possible unless perimeters were sealed.
The commments appeared to be aimed at Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which said this week they were ready to participate in any ground operations in Syria that the U.S.-led alliance fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq decided to mount.
( Writing by David Dolan and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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