Ankara watches as al-Assad leaves exit path in Aleppo siege

Ankara watches as al-Assad leaves exit path in Aleppo siege

Murat Yetkin
Ankara watches as al-Assad leaves exit path in Aleppo siege

AFP Photo

In a second attempt after one year to retake Syria’s second largest city from rebels, the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are tightening the vice on Aleppo, but leaving a path to the exit, a ranking Turkish military source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 19.

“We are observing the situation in Aleppo closely,” said the military source who asked not to be named. “It is clear that the regime forces have left an exit path of nearly 5 kilometers in width in the northwestern part of the city.” 

The main road in and out of Aleppo toward the Turkish border city of Kilis, only 60 kilometers away, passes through this northwestern part of the city. “It seems like al-Assad is trying to push those left in the town toward Turkey, which increases our worries about another wave of migration from Syria,” the source said.

Turkey already hosts over 1.5 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria since 2011. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Nov. 18 that the “fall” of Aleppo could expose Turkey to the possibility of 2 to 3 million refugees heading here in a short period of time. This was higher than earlier estimates by President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of “another 1.5 million.”

It seems that Ankara is equally worried about the possibility of Aleppo falling into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the possibility of Syrian government forces retaking the city.

“We should keep in mind that the government forces have caused the deaths of more than 200,000 of their own people so far,” one security analyst said, referring to the United Nations estimates. “People fear that if they gain control once again they could start killing people who oppose them. Damascus wants to push those who do not support the regime toward Turkey, but does not have the power to run the city even if it retakes it.”

The situation is more complicated as U.S. President Barack Obama’s anti-ISIL war coordinator held talks with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu in Ankara on Nov. 19, ahead of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey, which is expected on Nov. 22.

Despite signals from Washington that no such item will be on Biden’s agenda in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgiç said on Nov. 19 that Turkey would raise the no-fly zone issue during talks with President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu, which will take place in Istanbul. Bilgiç also said the no-fly zone issue was not a pre-condition for the implementation of an agreement “in principal” with the Americans on training and equipping -reportedly - 2,000 Syrian rebels in Turkey, but stressed that it should be a part of a “bigger picture.” 

Turkey wants the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL to impose a no-fly zone in Syrian air space north of the 36th parallel - like the one in Iraq between 1991-2003 - in order to protect both refugees and rebel forces against Syrian air force attacks. On Nov. 16, Davutoğlu said after meeting with Obama during the G-20 summit in Brisbane that the U.S. administration was now closer to the Turkish thesis, but this has yet to be confirmed by U.S. officials. 

President Erdoğan again insisted before leaving for Algeria on Nov. 19 that the removal of the al-Assad regime in Syria should be a part of the overall strategy, but it is not clear whether his Istanbul meeting with Biden will be able to iron out the discrepancies between them.