Tens of Thousands Flee Joint Russian-Iranian-Syrian Offensive on Rebel-held Aleppo

'It feels like a siege of Aleppo is about to begin,' U.S. aid worker says, as regime forces fully encircle countryside north of major city and Russian airstrikes mount to 250 a day, according to rebels.

Syrians fleeing Aleppo wait on February 5, 2016 in Bab-Al Salama, near Turkish crossing gate.
AFP

Tens of thousands of Syrians fled an intensifying Russian assault around Aleppo on Friday, and aid workers said they feared the major city could soon fall under a full government siege. 

Iran reported one of its generals had been killed on the front line, giving direct confirmation of the role Tehran is playing along with Moscow in what appears to be one of the most determined offensives in five years of civil war. 

The government assault around Aleppo, and advances in the south and northwest, helped to torpedo Geneva peace talks this week. Russia's intervention has tipped the war President Bashar Assad's way, reversing gains rebels made last year. 

The last two days saw government troops and their Lebanese and Iranian allies fully encircle the countryside north of Aleppo and cut off the main supply route linking the city - Syria's largest before the war - to Turkey. Ankara said it suspected the aim was to starve the population into submission. 

Aleppo would be the biggest strategic prize in years for Assad's government in a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes. 

Video footage showed thousands of people massing at the Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish border. Men carried luggage on their heads, and the elderly and those unable to walk were brought in wheelchairs. Women sat on the side of the road holding babies and waiting to be allowed into Turkey. 

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said 15,000 people fleeing Aleppo had arrived at Turkey's border.

Rights group Amnesty International urged Turkey to let in those fleeing the latest violence, after reports the border remained closed. 

"It feels like a siege of Aleppo is about to begin," said David Evans, Middle East program director for the U.S. aid agency Mercy Corps, which said the most direct humanitarian route to Aleppo had been severed. 

"The situation in Aleppo is a humanitarian catastrophe," said an opposition spokesman still in Geneva after the ill-fated peace talks. "The international community must take urgent, concrete steps to address it." 

Non-stop Russian air strikes 

"The Russian (air) cover continues night and day, there were more than 250 air strikes on this area in one day," Hassan Haj Ali, head of Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, a rebel group fighting in northwest Syria, told Reuters. 

"The regime is now trying to expand the area it has taken control of," he added. "Now the northern countryside (of Aleppo) is totally encircled, and the humanitarian situation is very difficult." 

Syrian state TV and a monitoring group said the army and its allies had seized the town of Ratyan north of Aleppo. Haj Ali said the town had not yet fallen, but that there were "very heavy battles". 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said some 120 fighters on all sides had been killed around Ratyan. 

Hezbollah's Al Manar TV and Syrian state TV later on Friday said forces had taken another nearby town, Mayer. 

The Syrian army and its allies broke a years-long rebel blockade of two Shi'ite towns in Aleppo province on Wednesday, cutting off a major supply line from Turkey to Aleppo. 

Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, has been divided for years between a section under government control and areas in the grip of rebels. Much of the UNESCO heritage old city is in ruins. 

Any government siege would target the rebel-held parts, where more than 350,000 people live. Well over a million live in the areas under government control. 

Haj Ali said most of the fighters on the government side were "Iranian and from Hezbollah, or Afghan". 

A non-Syrian senior security source close to Damascus told Reuters on Thursday that Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was overseeing operations in the Aleppo area. 

Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier-General Mohsen Ghajarian had been killed in Aleppo province, as had six Iranian volunteer militiamen. 

The five-year-old civil war pits the government led by Assad, a member of the Alawite sect derived from Shi'ite Islam, against a range of insurgents who are mainly Sunni Muslims, backed by Saudi Arabia, other Arab states and Turkey. Western countries have lined up in opposition to Assad. 

Since 2014, the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State has run a self-proclaimed caliphate in eastern Syria and Iraq, under air assault from a U.S.-led coalition. Russia launched its own separate air campaign four months ago to aid its ally Assad, transforming the battlefield. 

But swathes of the country are still in the hands of armed rebels, including Islamic State in the east, Kurdish militia in the north, and a mosaic of groups in the west who have been the target of many of the Russian air strikes.