Hundreds of thousands of civilians could be cut off from food if Syrian government forces encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, the United Nations said on Tuesday, warning of a massive new flight of refugees from a Russian-backed assault.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters, have launched a major offensive in the countryside around Aleppo, which has been divided between government and rebel control for years.
The assault to surround Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city with two million people, amounts to one of the most important shifts of momentum in the five-year civil war that has killed 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes.
Since last week, fighting has already wrecked the first attempt at peace talks in two years and led rebel fighters to speak about losing their northern power base altogether.
The United Nations is worried the government advance could cut off the last link for civilians in rebel-held parts of Aleppo with the main Turkish border crossing, which has long served as the lifeline for insurgent-controlled territory.
“It would leave up to 300,000 people, still residing in the city, cut off from humanitarian aid unless cross-line access could be negotiated,” the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an urgent bulletin.
If government advances around the city continue, it said, “local councils in the city estimate that some 100,000–150,000 civilians may flee.”
Turkey, already home to 2.5 million Syrians, the world’s biggest refugee population, has so far kept its frontier mostly closed to the latest wave of displaced persons, making it more difficult to reach them with urgently needed aid. The United Nations urged Ankara on Tuesday to open the border and has called on other countries to assist Turkey with aid.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said as many as a million refugees could arrive if the Russian-Syrian campaign continues. Fifty thousand people had reached Turkey’s borders in the latest wave. Ankara had admitted 10,000 so far and would allow in others in a “controlled fashion,” he said.
The U.N. World Food Program said in a statement it had begun food distribution in the Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border for the new wave of displaced people.