ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: The government’s barrel bomb offensive against the city of Aleppo has produced a new refugee minicrisis, as residents flee for government-controlled areas and the Turkish border.
A pro-opposition media outlet based in Aleppo, the Halab News network, said that over the last week, 1,500 families had tried to cross from rebel-held east to the western part of Syria’s commercial metropolis, where the government forces are in control.
The Bustan al-Qasr checkpoint has seen long lines of people trying to make it across the divided city, it said. Citing Red Crescent sources, the outlet said a record number of 300 families made the trip from east to west in a single day.
Another pro-opposition outlet, Shahba Press, cited activists who said that while the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood retained about half of its prewar population, most of the rebel-held parts of the city further east were now down to no more than 15 percent of their prewar population.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, said regime helicopters dropped crude “barrel bombs” on at least four neighborhoods in Aleppo, while several other neighborhoods were targeted by regime airstrikes, killing at least five people.
The Observatory said that Tuesday’s nationwide death toll stood at 182 people, of whom 23 were civilians in Aleppo, while six rebels in the province were also killed.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Tuesday in which he condemned the regime’s “barbarity” in using such barrel bombs – oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments dropped from helicopters – on civilian populations.
The use of such barrel bombs was also condemned by Syria’s opposition delegation and its Western backers at last month’s peace talks held in Switzerland.
“The regime has become even more aggressive,” said Yakzan Shishakly, co-founder of the U.S.-based Syrian-American Maram Foundation refugee charity. “This was hard to imagine before.”
Efforts to pass a resolution in the United Nations Security Council to condemn the crude devices have gone nowhere, due to a lack of support from Syria’s ally Russia.
The regime’s helicopters Wednesday also dropped a dozen barrel bombs on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, two villages in the province of Hama and in rural areas of the province of Qunaitra further south, but no casualties were reported in the attacks.
Meanwhile, Turkey is turning away Syrian families without passports after the refugee influx caused by the bombing campaign in Aleppo filled up its refugee camps, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said.
One of the Syrian opposition’s most vocal allies, Turkey has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees.
But resources have been stretched at the Turkish border after President Bashar Assad’s forces intensified attacks on Aleppo, both by dropping barrel bombs and slowly winning ground against rebels weakened by weeks of infighting.
“Camps in Kilis are at full capacity unfortunately, but there are free spaces in our other camps,” a press officer for Turkey’s state AFAD disaster agency said, referring to refugee camps near the Turkish border.
Ankara is sticking to its “open border” policy and refugees will be accepted “following necessary security controls,” the press officer said.
A camp inside Syria near the Syrian Bab al-Salameh border crossing, about 50 kilometers north of Aleppo, is also full, IHH’s Kilis media officer said, adding that numbers there had risen to 25,000 from 14,000 in the last week.
“The Syrians who don’t get into Turkey are sheltering in Syria – just under blankets,” the media officer said. Nighttime temperatures in the area fall below freezing.
Turkish police at Oncupinar border post across from Bab al-Salameh said restrictions applied to those without passports, but that the crossing was open, with no big crowd at the gate.
Further east, the Observatory said that for the last 18 days, Turkish authorities had been preventing more than 2,000 refugees, including women and children, from crossing into Turkey after they had fled the city of Raqqa.
“Most of them are living in the open, near to the barbed wire at the Tal Abyad border,” the British-based watchdog said.
The exodus toward the border came after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) cemented its control over the town during last month’s campaign between ISIS and an array of rebel groups.