ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has accused Syrian forces of committing massacres in and around Aleppo and said Turkey would face a major new refugee crisis if Syria’s second city fell into their hands.
As U.S. warplanes bomb Islamic State forces in parts of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s military has intensified its campaign against some rebel groups in the west and north that Washington sees as allies, including in and around Aleppo.
Ankara has been pushing for the U.S.-led coalition to broaden its campaign to tackle Assad as well as Islamic State, arguing there can be no peace in Syria if he remains in power.
“We are watching the developments in Aleppo with concern. Though the city is not on the verge of falling, it is under extreme pressure,” Davutoglu told reporters late on Tuesday after meeting Turkey’s top generals.
Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, has been split roughly in half between opposition groups in the east and government troops in the west. Assad’s forces have slowly encircled rebel positions this year trying to cut supply routes.
Davutoglu said Assad’s forces were committing “large massacres” by barrel-bombing areas northeast and west of Aleppo under the control of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella term for the dozens of armed groups fighting Assad.
“If Aleppo were to fall, we in Turkey would really be confronted with a large, very serious, worrisome refugee crisis. This is why we want a safe zone,” he said.
Turkey already hosts more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria’s civil war and has been pushing the United States and its allies to create a safe haven for refugees on Syrian territory. Any such move on the southern fringe of its border would require a no-fly zone policed by foreign jets.
The United States continued its assault on Islamic State militants this week, conducting 14 airstrikes in recent days in Syria and Iraq, U.S. Central Command said, three of them near the predominantly Kurdish border town of Kobani.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the U.S.-led coalition’s focus on Kobani, which has been besieged by Islamic State for more than a month, and warned its attention needed to be turned to other parts of the conflict.
The Syrian civil war has killed close to 200,000 people and forced more than 3 million refugees to flee the country, according to the United Nations.
At least 11 children were killed in Damascus when mortars fell on a school in an eastern district of the Syrian capital, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said on Wednesday.
The school was in a rebel-held part of Qaboun, a district in the east of the city which is contested between government and rebel forces, the monitoring group said. The death toll was expected to rise because a number of those wounded were in critical condition, it said.
Fighters linked to al Qaeda also took ground from moderate Syrian rebels last week in the northern province of Idlib, expanding their control. A member of the Syrian rebel forces based in southeastern Turkey said on Wednesday the Nusra Front had made further gains in recent days.
Echoing Erdogan’s calls, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week that Aleppo, the “bastion” of the opposition, was almost encircled by Assad’s forces and that abandoning it would end hopes of a political solution in Syria.
Paris says it is providing military aid and training to the ramshackle Free Syrian Army, but has not given any specific details. Turkey has also agreed to help train the rebels, although it remains unclear when and where that will happen.
France has also echoed Turkey’s calls for a buffer zone in Syria, but the idea has so far failed to gain much traction elsewhere in the coalition. French diplomats say it is not viable without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Tom Heneghan