Russian-backed airstrikes against Syrian rebels causes new wave of refugees into Turkey

Refugees gathered at the border between Syria and Turkey. (Photo credit: CCTV screen shot)

In Syria, government forces backed by Russian airstrikes are driving rebels from their stronghold in the northern countryside. That’s causing a new wave of refugees now massing on the Turkish border. The huge swell of Syrians fleeing the offensive comes as the United Nations releases a report on massive numbers of people trapped in both official and ad hoc detention facilities in the country. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry says the Syrian government is systematically exterminating detainees. The report also accuses two of the anti-government armed groups fighting in the country of war crimes and crimes against humanity. FSRN’s Jacob Resneck has more on the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the Turkey-Syria border.

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Syrian state television reported that villages north of Aleppo had been cleared of rebel fighters. If the reports are true, these communities had until recently been a stronghold of rebel militias fighting for the better part of five years.

That helps explain why around 100 thousand people are now massed along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey has closed its border gates and says it will only let in small groups at a time.

It’s a turning point in the war. The U.N.’s refugee agency says this latest offensive threatens to cut off about 300 thousand people inside Aleppo who had been receiving humanitarian aid.

The U.N. also called on Turkey to let this latest wave of Syrians inside.

“Many people are not being allowed to cross the border, and we are asking Turkey to open its border to all civilians from Syria who are fleeing danger and seeking international protection,” UNHCR’s spokesman William Spindler said Tuesday.

Turkey is already host to about 2.5 million Syrian refugees. And it’s in the midst of negotiating a nearly $3.5 billion deal with the European Union in exchange for help slowing the flow of refugees into Europe.

Ankara is a main sponsor of Islamist militias fighting in the Syrian civil war and has criticized western countries for not doing more to help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, Russia has at the same time been providing substantial military support to Syrian troops, including, according to Human Rights Watch, cluster bomb attacks in rebel held areas.

“The entire international community, the United States and United Nations know this,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. He criticized Russia for backing al-Assad and called for firmer action against Moscow. “It has to be stopped. We expect the conscience of humanity to act but this has not happened. The heart of the international community has stopped. It’s frozen.”

Amateur footage posted online shows what it claims to be the immediate aftermath of a Russian airstrike. Reports of chaos and civilian casualties persist.

The Kremlin denies responsibility for non-combatant suffering saying there is “no credible evidence” of civilian deaths from its air strikes.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel leveled intense criticism of Russia during a visit to Turkey earlier this week.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Moscow to cease aerial assaults on rebel fighters. He said Russian officials need to do more to support Syrian peace talks, tentatively set to be begin this week in Munich, if they are to have any chance of success.

“We are not blind to what is happening,” Kerry said Tuesday during a visit to Egypt. “We are all very very aware of how critical this moment is and Russia needs to contribute in significant ways to sustaining the ability of the opposition and others to come to the table and create an atmosphere in which that you could actually have a negotiation.”

Amidst this destruction it is little wonder tens of thousands of refugees continue to pour out of the Middle East and into Europe. UNHCR says more than 50,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, and it’s only February.

The trip continues to be fraught with dangers. On Monday the Greek coast guard said at least 38 people drowned, including 11 children, as they tried to reach a Greek island from Turkey.

Even winter storms apparently aren’t enough to stop people so fearful they will risk their lives, and the lives of their children, to reach the relative safety of Europe.

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