Syrian Army Close to Cutting Off the Last Access Road to Aleppo

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Syrian families line-up waiting to go back to Syria at the Turkish Oncupinar border gate near Kilis, Feb. 8, 2016.
Syrian families line-up waiting to go back to Syria at the Turkish Oncupinar border gate near Kilis, Feb. 8, 2016.Credit: AFP

TURKEY-SYRIA BORDER – The forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad were only three kilometers from cutting off the last road out of the city of Aleppo on Monday. Only six kilometers separated the two armored columns of Syrian soldiers and Shi'ite militias from Iran and Afghanistan under Iranian command that are threatening to cut off access to Syria's largest city entirely.

With the last highway under fire, Syrian rebels and aid organizations continued in their efforts to send supply trucks to the 300,000 civilians who are still believed to be in the city.

"Why should the Russians stop now?" asked Bassam al-Kuwaiti, the head of a Syrian aid organization who returned over the weekend from the abortive ceasefire talks in Geneva. "They have an opportunity to beat the resistance."

"They're not even interested in the Islamic Front," Kuwaiti continued. "The regime's forces pass them by. They even pass through territory controlled by ISIS without fighting them."

After two days of reorganization, the regime's forces resumed their ground attack in an unsuccessful attempt to take the town of Al-Tamurah , north of the Aleppo-Idlib highway, on Monday. Nevertheless, the rebels estimated that the ring around Aleppo would close entirely within the next two days.

Most of the rebel groups have united into one fighting force known as the Army of Aleppo. Together with the aid organizations, they are organizing the distribution of food and generator fuel from emergency supplies. Residents fleeing the city have been forbidden to take food with them.

Due to the bombing of ISIS' smuggling routes, fuel is now barely arriving in the city. Generators are providing electricity for four hours a day only.

Another sign of the pending siege is the closure of the last of the city's foreign exchange booths, which until now have been the way the city's residents received cash from their relatives outside the country. Foreign exchange dealers have now left the city which was once Syria's financial capital.

"The population here is very frightened," said Ishmael al-Halabi, a member of Aleppo's civil search and rescue unit known as the White Helmets. "They fear that Aleppo will be a replay of Madaya," (a suburb of Damascus where Syrian and Hezbollah forces starved the population in order to defeat the rebels.)

Aid organizations estimate that several tens of thousands of people have left the city in the past week, though at least 300,000 civilians and some 30,000 fighters still remain in "Free Aleppo," the eastern part of the city that has been in rebel hands since 2012.

Many are either too poor to own a car for the perilous drive under fire to Idlib or are concerned about finding themselves homeless in a rural area during winter. Others may be in a position to leave but are concerned that the situation in Idlib is also tenuous, ever since the Turkish authorities closed the nearby border crossing.

'We are making a joint effort to get as much food as possible into the city," said Abdel Ziad, a journalist from Aleppo. "We are filling the emergency supplies before it is too late."

Despite the call by the international community for Turkey to open the two border crossings in north-west Syria, the Turkish authorities continue to maintain that their country has not more room for refugees on its territory. It has allowed the entry of several dozen sick people only.

Instead, Turkey is building refugee camps in Syrian territory close to the border. No-one is guaranteeing the refugees that they will be safe in the camps from attacks by the regime and bombing by Russian jets.

Last week, the Russians launched air attacks on refugee camps in the Latakia area. North of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border is the enclave of Azaz, which has also been cut off. The rebels in the town are surrounded on three sides – the Syrian army to the south, ISIS to the east and the Kurdish militia YPG to the west. The latter are currently receiving assistance from Russia and Iran, while in other areas they are supported by the western countries.

"It's difficult to believe that ISIS, the Kurds and the regime aren't coordinated," said Hamid Jawad, an opposition activist from Tel Rifat in the Azaz enclave. "They're not fighting each other, just against the resistance and the Syrian people."

He said that in Tel Rifat, which until recently had a population of some 35,000 people, only 5,000 remain, mostly the families of fighters, old people and the sick. "We are continuing to fight around the village, but it requires willpower from those with a wife and children not to flee with them," he said.

There are still several thousand people in the enclave who are unable to flee to Turkey. The tent camps provided by Turkey are insufficient and many are exposed to the elements close to the border. At least two people died from exposure on Sunday night.

Juma al-Bakri, a minister in the Turkey-based Syrian opposition government, estimated that some 400,000 people are likely to leave Aleppo and Azaz and head towards the Turkish border if the attacks by the regime and the Russian air force continue.

"We have been calling on the international community since the beginning of the war to proclaim a no-fly zone along the border where refugees can take shelter," he said.

"But the international community refuses to do it. The world has simply deserted Syria."

The Islamic State is trying to increase its support out of the disaster in Aleppo and Azaz. In a Facebook post on Monday, one of the group's spokesmen called on the area's residents to "accept the final offer of Sheikh Al-Adnani (the leader of ISIS in Syria) and then the Islamic State will come to your areas to defend you.

"We will lead you according to Sharia law; you will stand with us and we will stand with you. If not, your cities and lands and women will fall to the Shiites and Alawites and you will lose your lives in this world and the world to come."

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