Turkey’s main border crossings with north-west Syria remain closed for a second day as tens of thousands of refugees flee a Russian bombardment and a ground offensive by pro-government groups that has all but besieged Aleppo.
Aid agencies in southern Turkey were scrambling to deliver food and shelter to whole communities that had fled the most sustained attack of the five-year war, with some arrivals claiming their towns and villages had been decimated by indiscriminate bombing.
The United Nations estimated that 20,000 people had gathered at the Bab al-Salam border crossing. Most are believed to be among the poorest residents of northern Syria, who had remained behind throughout a conflict that had emptied out the countryside between Aleppo and the border, and whittled away the rebel-held east of the city itself.
The regime push marks one of the most decisive phases of the war, and comes after three years of setbacks in the north, in which most of Aleppo and Idlib provinces had fallen from the grasp of Damascus.
Few residents had remained in Aleppo before the latest push, which coincided with now-stalled peace talks in Geneva between Syrian regime officials and members of the opposition. Rebel forces still in east Aleppo said the country’s largest city had been without power, fuel, water and food for several weeks.
A ground assault led by Hezbollah and Shia militia groups has effectively laid siege to the city, which had been a stronghold of the opposition presence in northern Syria since July 2012. Rebel groups in the area, among them the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, conceded that only several kilometres stood between pro-Assad forces on either side and that the gap was likely to be closed over the weekend.
“The Russian airplanes haven’t stopped,” said Syrian activist Bahaa al-Halabi. “Every minute, there is an airstrike. The Russian airplanes are flying five or six planes together. So far, they have hit more than three local markets and caused a lot of civilian casualties.
“People have been fleeing Aleppo since last week and heading to the Turkish borders but the Turks are not allowing them to enter. They have been sleeping in the fields without any protection in this cold weather.
“They do not dare to cross to the areas controlled by the regime because they know they will be killed straight away. Nothing is safe now, Aleppo the city and the countryside are destroyed and the Shia militias of Hezbollah, Abu Fadhl al-Abas and the Iranian militias are fighting at the borders of the city.”
A second Syrian activist at the Bab al-Salam crossing, Yousef Haj Ali, said: “There are huge numbers of refugees here. They have escaped a brutal war against them. Azaz has been hit throughout the day by planes and they have nowhere to hide.”
Iranian news agencies said on Friday that a brigadier general and six members of its Basiji forces had been killed in the fighting. Hezbollah, which has played a lead role in the assault, which first broke a siege of two Shia villages, has not released casualty figures. However, residents of the group’s stronghold of Dahiyeh in south Beirut said at least four of its members had died.
Turkey has taken in more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees throughout the conflict and allowed hundreds of thousands more to cross its borders, many of whom have travelled to Europe via overland routes or deadly crossings of the Mediterranean Sea. Of those who remain in Turkey, many are housed in camps near the border crossings. However, over the past year, only urgent medical cases and some people with pre-arranged family visits have been allowed to enter Turkey.
Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International, said: “Turkey … must not close its doors to people in desperate need of safety.
“These people have fled airstrikes and heavy fighting; they are likely to be traumatised and exhausted. Turkey must allow them to enter its territory and the international community must do all it can to ensure adequate support is given to the country.”
Mohammed al-Yousef, a refugee from Raytan, which fell on Thursday to pro-regime forces, said every hospital in the north had been damaged or destroyed by warplanes. The UN estimated that 13 hospitals had been destroyed in January.
Access to medical care was now a critical issue for new arrivals, Yousef said. “It’s just as important to get treated as it is to get food and water.”
Russia’s stated goal in Syria had been to to attack Islamic State, which controls much of eastern Syria, and has a smaller presence in parts of the centre of the country. Isis forces have not had a significant presence in the north-west since last February, when opposition groups ousted them after a six-week battle.
The war, which started as a civilian uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad, has destroyed large parts of the country’s towns and cities, forced 6.5 million to flee and left millions more to fend for themselves amid widespread bombardment and starvation sieges.
Opposition forces, which initially unified under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, have splintered and realigned throughout the war into a dizzying array of groups. Some have Islamist leanings, others are global jihadis, and yet more are non-ideological units who claim to be fighting to re-orientate power within Syria’s borders.
Regime forces have been significantly boosted throughout the war by Shia militias, led by Hezbollah, and the Abl al-Fadil al-Abbas brigades from Iraq. More recently, they have been joined by Shias recruited from Afghanistan. All have been co-ordinated by Iran.
Despite the support, the military had been unable to manoeuvre around Aleppo in two prior attempts to oust the rebels. Russian air assaults over the past fortnight, as well as the direct involvement of some Iranian forces, have been decisive in the current advances.
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said on Friday that the Russian strikes were “undermining efforts to find a political solution to the conflict”.