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Syrians Fleeing Fighting In Aleppo Remain Stranded At Turkish Border

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Syrians Fleeing Fighting In Aleppo Remain Stranded At Turkish Border

Middle East

Syrians Fleeing Fighting In Aleppo Remain Stranded At Turkish Border

Syrians Fleeing Fighting In Aleppo Remain Stranded At Turkish Border

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Syrians are fleeing to Turkey to seek safety from increased airstrikes around the city of Aleppo. But Turkey — already hosting more than 2 million Syrians — says it can't let them in yet.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And now to Syria. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people are trying to escape the Syrian city of Aleppo and go to the border with Turkey. Forces loyal to Syria's government are advancing, and people are running from the fighting. Aid groups say the border crossing to Turkey has been closed to all but people with severe medical emergencies. Earlier, I talked to an aid worker with the group Mercy Corps in the Syrian town of Azaz not far from the border. His name is Mohammed. He asked us not to say his last name for his safety. He says most people are massing in camps inside Syria at the border, and the conditions are bad.

MOHAMMED: Today, there was a death for a girl because of the winter because of the cold. And they don't have enough blankets. They don't have shelter. Because of the rain, there are a lot of mud around the camps.

MCEVERS: They don't have shelter, he says, beyond tents, tarps and blankets in this cold and muddy part of Syria. Aid groups like Mercy Corps are trying to help, Mohammed, says but there are simply too many people.

MOHAMMED: Me and one of Mercy Corps staff support them. We give them blankets, supply them with water every day. But that's not enough.

MCEVERS: Mohammed says civilians are fleeing not just Syrian government troops but also pro-government militias, ISIS and Russian airstrikes.

MOHAMMED: What do we do? Because (unintelligible), we have ISIS. We have the regime and the Russian gangs. We have nowhere to move to.

MCEVERS: He says if Aleppo falls to Syrian government forces and if those forces continue on to the border, the situation for civilians will be much, much worse.

MOHAMMED: If the Army takes Aleppo and continue moving toward the Turkish border, it great problem. There will be great number of dying people, I think.

MCEVERS: There will be a great number of dying people, he says. Today, the foreign minister of Turkey warned that if Russia and the Syrian government continue their current military offensive in Aleppo, as many as a million Syrians could be forced to flee. The foreign minister also said Turkey has recently let 10,000 Syrians cross into Turkey, but it's unclear exactly when or under what circumstances. NPR's Peter Kenyon is reporting on this from Istanbul, and I asked him about that 10,000 number.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: First, it's not clear yet that there's any new policy on the border with regard to this wave. Pressure certainly is mounting. The Turkish foreign minister is saying there's a controlled entry of Syrians. This could just be still the same medical emergencies that they have been letting in for days now. And so we'll just have to see what people on the ground say as this develops.

MCEVERS: And 10,000, of course, is just a fraction of the people who are reportedly trapped along the border. I mean, does this mean Turkey is committed to opening up more, letting in more than just these emergency cases it's been allowing so far?

KENYON: It's always said it would if it was absolutely necessary, but their first preference is still to provide whatever care they can on the other side of the border first. Ten thousand would be about 20 percent of those piling up in this latest wave. And we really should note that these figures are all estimates. They're changing all the time.

MCEVERS: Right.

KENYON: So the exact numbers are probably not that reliable. And there were tens of thousands of Syrians on their side of the border even before this.

MCEVERS: Right.

KENYON: You know, some are starting to wonder if this is even becoming a kind of de facto safe zone, which, as you know, the U.S. has never really supported.

MCEVERS: And when we talk about numbers, I mean, one of the predictions right now is that a million more displaced Syrians could be on the move.

KENYON: Well, that was alarming and possibly intended to be so. It's not clear where that figure come from. Others are talking about figures in the hundreds of thousands, but that's a pretty bad worst-case-scenario in and of itself. And the point is, this could still get a lot worse.

MCEVERS: The U.N. has been calling on Turkey to let more people in, but Turkey's in a tough position. What are the Turkish officials saying in response to the U.N.?

KENYON: We'll they're saying admitting everyone in a rush now is problematic. It's not the best solution for them or for anyone. They've already got 2-and-a-half million Syrians, 3 million people if you count Iraqis and others - far more than any other country. And they're also pointing out that when you look across the border in Syria, you've got hundreds of thousands of people living in besieged areas like Madaya, where we saw those terrible images of starving civilians. Now, the U.N. says most of the people in Syria are trapped by pro-regime forces, and if a city as big as Aleppo gets besieged, the potential for tragedy is just huge.

MCEVERS: Many of the key players will be at a security conference in Munich this week. Is there any reason to think that there will be progress on improving conditions on the ground in Syria?

KENYON: Well, Russia says the U.S. is studying a new proposal. We don't know what's in it, whether it includes any immediate help for the worst-hit areas. Secretary Kerry, of course, says Russia's impeding the talks with its bombing campaign. The short answer is, you still have major players with conflicting agendas, so progress will be tough.

MCEVERS: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thank you.

KENYON: Thanks, Kelly.

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