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Amid Syrian refugee exodus, Turkey's open door swings shut

Tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing a Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo. Turkish aid groups are providing food and shelter to those trapped over the border. 

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Syrians line up as they wait to cross into Syria at Oncupinar border crossing in the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey, on Monday.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

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Trucks loaded up with aid and the occasional ambulance crossed here today into Syria in a bid to relieve the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians displaced by a major Russian-backed regime offensive.

Turkey already hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees and appears reluctant to open border gates like Bab Al-Salama. Only refugees with critical injuries are being admitted for medical treatment while aid groups funnel food and shelter to the displaced on the other side of the border.

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The European Union, which is courting Ankara’s help in stemming the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers in exchange for political concessions and $3.3 billion in aid, has asked Turkey to open its doors to this fresh exodus.

​Syrians on this side of the border hope it is simply a matter of time.

“I have been waiting right here for four days with no idea of how my family is,” laments Fatma al-Ahmed, an elderly lady from Aleppo Province. She says two of her sons died during bombings by the Syrian regime.

Now she worries about her only surviving son, who was wounded by a cluster bomb dropped by Russia and hospitalized in the northern town of Azaz, his injuries not serious enough for Turkey to allow him to enter. “There are thousands of people waiting on the other side come into Turkey and all I want to do is go back to fetch my son,” she says.

With the backing of Russian warplanes and foreign fighters, the Syrian regime last week recaptured two besieged pro-regime towns in Aleppo Province. It also succeeded in cutting off the main supply route – used by rebels and humanitarian organizations – connecting Turkey to Aleppo City, the main commercial hub of Syria before the war. The city has been divided since 2013 into regime and rebel sections.

Residents fear that the regime will apply the starve-or-surrender tactics used in other opposition-held areas against Aleppo, which had a prewar population of more than two million. Thousands of families have fled the rebel-controlled eastern half of the city. 

But as many as 400,000 residents and individuals displaced by the conflict have stayed put in the east, unwilling to risk leaving without the guarantee of sanctuary in Turkey, despite intense bombardment by Russian-backed forces. 

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'A really critical point' 

Russia says that its airstrikes are targeting terrorists, but is widely accused of attacking opponents of the Syrian regime, a longtime Russian ally, and indiscriminately hitting hospitals and other clearly marked civilian facilities.

Speaking at the Turkish border gate of Oncupinar, Hussein Bakri, the Syrian opposition’s interim minister in charge of refugees, appealed for international help to “stop the Russian enemy from bombing civilians and to provide aid to the displaced.”

“We are talking about tens of thousands of people,” says Dalia Al-Awqati, programs director for northern Syria at Mercy Corps, one of the largest providers of aid in Aleppo. “We are getting to a really critical point.”

She says there are two at-risk populations facing displacement. The first are those who have fled northern Aleppo Province in search for safety closer to the border with Turkey. The second is the population inside the city, who are now cut off from food aid. “It is a bleak scenario whichever way you look at it,” she says.

Russian war planes on Monday hit four opposition-held neighborhoods in the city, killing 20 people and wounding 10 others, according to a relief worker with the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer group. Sixteen of the fatalities were so badly disfigured by the bombing that they were impossible to identify, the relief worker, Bibers Mashaal, said via Whatsapp.

Fears of a regime siege

Even though the bombing is more intense in the countryside than in the city at the moment, many civilians are packing up their belongings and fleeing to the outskirts of Aleppo because they fear an imminent siege.

A major player in relief efforts along the border in northern Syria is the Turkish Islamic charity IHH, which has been setting up tents and providing food to displaced families. “It is impossible for us to meet all the demand,” says IHH spokesman Burak Karacaoglu.

Should Turkey open its border gates, it would likely struggle to cope with the wave of refugees as a result of the offensive in Aleppo, he said.

For now, the displaced are massed in northern Syria, across from the Turkish town of Kilis, in the hope of being allowed in. IHH is currently providing 30,000 ready meals as well as 100,000 loaves of bread to them. Since Friday it has also erected more than 300 tents to accommodate them.

Local Turkish authorities estimate up to 55,000 people are sheltered across the border, most of them individuals displaced in the past five days. They are housed in 18 camps, according to Mr. Karacaoglu, but tens of thousands of others had to find shelter in derelict abandoned buildings, empty schools, and mosques in rural Aleppo.

“Syria’s children have been scattered everywhere,” lament Umm Ali, a Syrian woman with traditional tribal tattoos on her face waiting in vain for her relatives on the Turkish side of the border. “I won’t see peace in my lifetime.”