Aleppo offensive may trigger new refugee wave, Turkey warns

Much of Aleppo, once a vibrant city, has been destroyed by the war. [Reuters]

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu warned European leaders that the offensive south of the Syrian city of Aleppo, as well as attacks in the area by Islamic State militants, could “cause another wave of refugees”.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled a government offensive on rebel-held areas south of the city of Aleppo in the past three days, an activist says.

Aleppo is about 50km (30 miles) from the border with Turkey. The city, once Syria’s commercial and industrial hub, has been divided in roughly two since 2012, with the government controlling the western half and rebel factions holding the east.

The government offensive is the latest of at least four launched with Russian air support in the past two weeks.

Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement are propping up the Alawite-led Assad government, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar back the more moderate Sunni-dominated opposition, along with the US, UK and France. Hezbollah and Iran have pro-Assad forces on the ground. A Western-led coalition and Russia are carrying out separate air strikes.

‘Safe zone’

Davuto?lu also said that a “safe zone” in northern Syria was badly needed to contain the flow of refugees.

The Turkish version of a safe zone entails reinforcing rebel forces that are friendly with Turkey to flush out the Islamic State from a zone measuring 80 kilometers (50 miles) by 40 kilometers in Syria’s northern Aleppo province. A no-fly zone, according to the Turkish proposal, would accompany the safe zone. Once the zone is declared safe and free of terrorist activity, refugee camps would be set up and Syrian migrants could live within their country’s borders again.

According to Strafor, Turkey does not want to eradicate the Islamic State only to see Kurdish forces take its place. Rather, it wants to establish a physical foothold in northern Syria to ensure that the Kurds cannot create a viable autonomous state that could exacerbate Turkey’s own Kurdish problem at home.

Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army told the Reuters news agency that they had received new supplies of US-made anti-tank missiles since the assault began, though not enough to repel it.

The government’s forces appear to be pushing towards the motorway that links Aleppo with Latakia and Hama provinces, rebels say.

Aleppo is one of the jewels of the ancient world. For thousands of years the city has been a vibrant commercial crossroads, but much of it now lies in ruins, and the people there who have not fled already are starting to stream out, raising the prospect of a new wave of refugees knocking on Europe’s door for sanctuary. Some 3000 families have left in the last few days according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than 11 million Syrians have been driven from their homes since 2011. More than 4.18 million have fled abroad – 2.07 million of them to Turkey – with growing numbers now making the dangerous journey to Europe.

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