Russian air power, Iran-backed militias help Syrian forces advance toward Turkish border

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Syrian forces, in a major offensive supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, advanced toward the Turkish border on Feb. 8.

The Syrian advance and relentless Russian air strikes in recent days have led to one of the biggest shifts in momentum of the five-year war. The offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces also sunk the first peace talks held in two years.

Syrian forces on the outskirts of Aleppo. /AFP
Syrian forces on the outskirts of Aleppo. /AFP

“Our whole existence is now threatened, not just losing more ground,” said Abdul Rahim al-Najdawi from the anti-Assad rebel group Liwa al-Tawheed. “They are advancing and we are pulling back because in the face of such heavy aerial bombing we must minimize our losses.”

The ground offensive has Syrian forces and their allies within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the rebel-held town of Tal Rafaat, and some 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Turkish border.

In the past few days, Syria and its allies have captured the towns of Mayer and Kafin, just north of Nubul and Zahraa, and have opened the road toward Tal Rafaat, the next focus of the offensive. If Tal Rafaat falls, it would leave only the town of Azaz before the Turkish border itself.

The loss of Azaz, situated just a few miles from the Bab al-Salama border crossing, would be a crushing blow as anti-Assad forces would lose one of their main strongholds in northwest Syria.

Fighting around the city of Aleppo in northern Syria has led tens of thousands to flee toward Turkey, which already shelters more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

Several thousand more refugees fled the towns of Anadan and Haritan, northwest of Aleppo, amid intense Russian bombardment.

Aid workers in the region have said Assad’s forces are on the verge of taking full control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war with 2 million people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “appalled” by the suffering of Aleppo, blaming primarily Russian bombing and suggesting it violated a U.N. Security Council resolution Moscow signed in December.

Kerem Kinik, Vice President of the Turkish Red Crescent, told reporters at the Oncupinar border crossing Russian air strikes were causing a panic and the were “hitting any vehicles that are on the move, they are hitting aid trucks.”

“The route to Aleppo is completely closed and this is a road that was feeding all the main arteries inside Syria,” Kinik said. “Unless this is reopened, you will see Aleppo falling day by day … and you will see a deepening humanitarian crisis.”

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