Syria: Angela Merkel ‘horrified’ by suffering under Russian airstrikes

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said she is “horrified” by the suffering caused by Russian bombing in Syria as pro-government forces backed by airstrikes came closer to encircling Aleppo.

Opposition activists and state media on Monday said Syrian army troops had taken the village of Kfeen, north of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, while rebel forces have also withdrawn under bombing from three Kurdish villages.

German Chancellor Merkel speaks during a session of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel

Tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the Russian-backed advance on Aleppo remain stranded near the Turkish border, with no sign that the authorities in Ankara will respond to mounting international pressure to allow in more refugees.

Rebels abandoned villages at the insistence of residents who feared their homes would be bombed

“We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people by bombing – bombing primarily from the Russian side,” Merkel said after a meeting with Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. She said the two countries would push at the United Nations for all sides to stick to a resolution passed in December calling for a halt to attacks on the civilian population.

Merkel made clear that she considered Moscow’s current course of action a violation of the UN resolution since it directly targeted civilians.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also criticised the attacks on Aleppo: “The dramatic pictures reaching us from the Syrian-Turkish border show one thing: those who think they can force a military solution to the conflict in Syrian are wrong”, he told Spiegel Online.

“It may be possible to momentarily shift the balance of power. But everyone should know that in the long run this doesn’t bring us any closer to an end of the conflict. On the the contrary.” Prolonging the military conflict only played into Isis’ hands, Steinmeier said. “This can be in no one’s interest, including Russia’s”.

Davutoğlu said nobody should expect Turkey to shoulder the refugee crisis alone, and harshly criticised the ongoing attack on Aleppo. “There are almost 30,000 Syrians waiting at our border. […] The inhumane attack on Aleppo needs to stop as soon as possible.

“Aleppo is in effect under siege,” he said. “There is great pressure on Germany with regard to the refugees in Europe. Humanity is being tested in Syria, we have to face this test together.”

State-run news agency Sana said army troops on Monday took control of Kfeen “after wiping out the last group of terrorists there”. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV also reported Kfeen’s capture and aired live footage from the village.

Syrian rebels have also withdrawn from three villages threatened by Russian airstrikes in the northern province of Aleppo that borders Turkey, allowing Kurdish fighters to overrun them, a monitor said on Monday.


Syrians at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey on Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels abandoned the villages of Aqlamiyah, Deir Jamal and Mareanar on Sunday at the insistence of residents who feared their homes would be bombed.

That enabled the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to move in to seize the three villages in another setback for the rebels only days after they lost three nearby towns to the Kurds.

Aqlamiyah and Mareanar lie near the strategic Menagh military airbase, held by rebel groups since August 2013.

Opposition factions north of Aleppo have been increasingly stuck “between the pincers” of YPG forces on one side and pro-government fighters on the other, a military source said.

After some clashes between rebels and the YPG, residents pressured rebels in some villages to hand over control to the Kurds so that Russian warplanes would not target their homes, said Rami Abdel Rahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Airstrikes targeted villages between Aleppo and the border crossing of Bab al-Salameh while convoys of aid supplies and ambulances entered from Turkey – reinforcing the impression that the Turks plan to create a border buffer zone that could in time become a safe haven for civilians.

Bashar al-Assad’s government made clear, however, that it was in no mood to contemplate a ceasefire – the focus of faltering US diplomatic efforts with Russia.

“Turkey has reached the end of its capacity to absorb [refugees],” Numan Kurtulmuş, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, told CNN-Turk on Sunday. “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.

“At the moment, we are admitting some, and are trying to keep others there [in Syria] by providing them with every kind of humanitarian support,” Kurtulmuş added. “We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths.”

The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which is providing food for 20,000 refugees, said on Monday it had set up a new camp with a capacity of 10,000, in addition to eight it already operates near the Bab al-Salameh crossing.

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