As Solidarity goes to press on 9 February, 35,000 refugees are trapped on the Syria-Turkey border as they flee from a renewed assault by the Assad regime on Syria’s largest city, rebel-held Aleppo.
Supplies to Aleppo have been cut off by Russian bombing. The Turkish government is refusing to let the refugees across the border. A grade less inhumane than EU governments, it is providing food and shelter in areas just on the Syrian side of the border, and says “if necessary, we have to and will let our brothers in”.
Turkey is haggling with the EU governments and the USA, hoping to get more aid for itself, less aid for the Kurds, a stronger line against Russia. If Assad’s attack on Aleppo succeeds, those 35,000 people, pawns in that haggling, may be just the first in a big new contingent of desperate people in flight.
The European Union’s and Britain’s refusal to take more than token numbers of those refugees will become even more horrible and damaging. Aleppo used to have over two million people. It has been largely controlled by rebel forces since 2012. Some 300,000 civilians still live there. Before Russia stepped up its bombing in support of Assad, rebels were able to consolidate their control of towns including Idlib and the area around Aleppo.
Ahrar al Sham, one of the lead rebel groups in the now-collapsed Geneva negotiations, has called on other rebel groups to come and defend the city. But it will be hard for them to withstand the Russian planes, which bomb without regard to civilian casualties. On top of the human tragedy, Assad’s new siege of Aleppo shifts the political balance. Aleppo has been the stronghold of non-Daesh forces in the Syrian opposition, some of them much less rancidly Islamist than Daesh. It has non-violent opposition groups like the White Helmets. The fall, or even the encirclement, of Aleppo will increase the relative strength of Daesh within the opposition to Assad.
The Gulf states and Turkey, the main suppliers and financiers of Syrian opposition forces, will not easily accept the fall of Aleppo particularly to Shia militias and regional rivals. Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute has speculated that; “[They may] set up a new rebel umbrella group similar to Jaish al-Fatah, and/or send anti-aircraft missiles to certain brigades...(or) open a new front in northern Lebanon.” “The question is, do Riyadh and Ankara have the means and willingness to conduct such a bold, dangerous action?” Syria has long been in a terrible impasse. Now it may well get worse.