KILIS, TURKEY/ONCUPINAR TURKEY – Turkey has reached the end of its “capacity to absorb” refugees but will continue to take them in, the deputy premier said Sunday, as his country faced mounting pressure to open its border to tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled a government onslaught.
The United Arab Emirates meanwhile joined Saudi Arabia in saying that it was open to the idea of sending ground troops to Syria to battle the Islamic State group, raising the possibility of even greater foreign involvement in the five-year-old civil war.
Turkish authorities say up to 35,000 Syrians have massed along the border, which remained closed for a third day on Sunday. The governor of the Turkish border province of Kilis said Saturday that Turkey would provide aid to the displaced within Syria, but would only open the gates in the event of an “extraordinary crisis.”
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN-Turk television that Turkey is now hosting a total of 3 million refugees, including 2.5 million Syrians.
“Turkey has reached the end of its capacity to absorb (refugees),” Kurtulmus said. “But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings and Turkey will … watch the massacre like the rest of the world, or we will open our borders.”
Kurtulmus said some 15,000 refugees from Syria were admitted in the past few days, without elaborating. He put the number of refugees being cared for on the other side of the border at 30,000.
He did not explain why the Turkish border gate at Oncupinar, opposite the Bab al-Salameh crossing in Syria, was being kept closed or why tens of thousands of refugees were not immediately being let in.
In Syria, pro-government forces pressed ahead with their offensive in the northern Aleppo province, which has caused the massive displacement of civilians toward the Turkish border. Opposition activists said Syrian ground troops backed by Russian airstrikes were engaged in intense fighting with insurgents around the village of Ratyan and surrounding areas north of Aleppo city.
The army has almost fully encircled Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one-time commercial center, preparing the way for a blockade. The main supply line to the Turkish border has already been cut and many residents of the city were looking to leave, anticipating severe shortages in coming days.
Dr. Ahmad Abdelaziz, of the Syrian American Medical Society, a humanitarian organization, said there were only four general surgeons for the entire city.
“The people there are very worried there could be a siege at any time. We expect a lot of people to get out of the city if the situation remains like this, if there is no improvement,” he said.
Abdelaziz, who goes in and out of Aleppo but spoke to AP from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, described a dire scene at the border and said it was difficult to get medicine to the people gathered there.
“There are so many old people and children in the cold weather. … They are surrounded by ISIS from the east, the regime from the south and Kurdish forces from the west,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
On Saturday, the European Union urged Turkey to open its borders, saying it was providing aid to Ankara for that purpose. EU nations have committed €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to Turkey to help refugees, part of incentives aimed at persuading Turkey to do more to stop thousands of migrants from leaving for Greece.
Kurtulmus estimated that “in the worst case scenario” as many as 1 million more refugees could flee Aleppo and surrounding areas.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-blown civil war after a harsh government crackdown. The fighting has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions to flee the country.
The war has drawn in regional and international rivals, with a U.S.-led coalition launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group and Russian warplanes backing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The Lebanese Hezbollah group has sent thousands of fighters to back Assad while Iran has dispatched what it refers to as “military advisers,” many of whom have been killed in combat in recent weeks.
Saudi Arabia — one of the main backers of the rebels battling to topple Assad — said last week it was willing in principle to send ground troops to battle Islamic State.
The United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash echoed that pledge Sunday, saying “we have been frustrated at the slow pace of confronting Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. He stressed that any deployment would be relatively small, saying: “We’re not talking about thousands of troops.”
Even a small force, however, could alarm Damascus and escalate regional tensions even further. On Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said any Saudi or other foreign ground troops who enter Syria would “return home in wooden coffins.”
Turkey said on Sunday it would not abandon thousands of Syrians stranded on its border after fleeing a major Russian-backed regime offensive, as aid agencies warned of a “desperate” situation.
Tens of thousands of people, including many women and children, have been uprooted as pro-government forces backed by intense Russian anti-rebel air strikes advance near Syria’s second city Aleppo.
“Turkey has reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the refugees,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN Turk television.
“But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings… or we will open our borders.”
“We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths.”
Turkey’s Oncupinar border crossing, which faces the Bab al-Salama frontier post inside Syria, remained closed Sunday to thousands of refugees gathered there for a third day, an AFP reporter said.
They waited desperately for the moment the gate will open, as Turkish aid trucks delivered food inside Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey was ready to open its gates to Syrian refugees “if necessary.”
Carrying what few belongings they still have, Syrians lined up in the cold and rain in squalid camps near the border, waiting for tents being distributed by aid agencies.
Others are reportedly sleeping in the open, in fields and on roads.
The medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said camps for displaced people in northern Aleppo province were overwhelmed.
“From what MSF can see the situation in Azaz district is desperate, with ongoing fighting and tens of thousands of people displaced,” said Muskilda Zancada, head of the group’s Syria mission.
“We are still conducting assessments but so far have seen problems with lack of space to accommodate people, and insufficient water and sanitation in many areas.”
The agency said three MSF-supported hospitals had been bombed, although the extent of the damage was unknown because their proximity to the front lines made access too difficult.
More than 260,000 people have died in Syria’s nearly five-year-old conflict, more than half the population has been displaced and hundreds of thousands have tried to reach Europe, sometimes paying with their lives making the risky Mediterranean Sea crossing.
The European Union has said Ankara was internationally obliged to keep its frontiers open to refugees, while also pressing the Turkish government to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe.
A Turkish official said the Oncupinar crossing was “open for emergency situations.”
“Seven injured were taken to Turkey on Friday and one on Saturday for treatment at Turkish hospitals,” he said.
Syrian government forces have closed in on Aleppo city in their most significant advance since Russia intervened in September in support of President Assad’s government.
Regime troops advanced Sunday toward the rebel town of Tal Rifaat, around 20 km (12 miles) from the Turkish frontier, a monitoring group said.
It is one of the last rebel strongholds in northern Aleppo province and government troops are just 7 km away, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syria’s mainstream rebels are now threatened with collapse after the regime severed their main supply line to Aleppo city.
Opposition forces and roughly 350,000 civilians inside rebel-held parts of the city face the risk of a government siege, a tactic that has been employed to devastating effect against other former rebel bastions.
On Sunday an aid convoy entered the regime-besieged town of Moadamiyat al-Sham near Damascus, in a new joint operation organized by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said 700 food parcels and 700 hygiene kits were to be distributed to 700 families, or roughly 3,500 people.
“We are planning to continue the aid in the next days,” he said. Last week another aid convoy brought aid to the town, which has been under government siege since the start of 2013.
Also near Damascus, 35 pro-regime militiamen and soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush at dawn in the opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta.
Top diplomats from countries trying to resolve the conflict are set to meet again Thursday after the collapse of peace talks last week.
Pope Francis urged the international community “to spare no effort to urgently bring parties back to the negotiating table” and appealed for generosity to ensure the “survival and dignity” of displaced Syrians.