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300,000 could be trapped as Syrian forces encircle Aleppo, says U.N.

February 9, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
ALEPPO, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 5: A civil defense team member stands on the debris of a building after the war crafts belonging to the Russian army carried out airstrikes on the residential areas in the opposition controlled Meshed district of Aleppo, Syria on February 5, 2016.

 (Photo by Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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GWEN IFILL: American intelligence officials told a Senate hearing today that Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has stabilized the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and turned the tide of the five-year civil war against U.S.-backed rebel forces.

That is most apparent in Aleppo in Northern Syria, where tens of thousands have fled as the Syrian army closes in.

William Brangham reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is everyday Aleppo now. Sirens wail as rescue crews rush to the scene of yet another airstrike, believed to be the work of Russian warplanes.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We have the planes over us. We have the rockets over us. We are dying. We are left with nothing, but our clothes. We want to be at ease. We want our dignity. It’s been five years of living under bombs, crying, “Oh, God.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Syrian government troops, backed by a barrage of Russian airstrikes, are fighting their way closer and closer to Aleppo. The United Nations warns that 300,000 people are at risk of being trapped inside what was once Syria’s largest city.

Rami Jarrah is a Syrian journalist and activist now in Istanbul, Turkey. He was in Aleppo just two weeks ago, and spoke with us today via Skype.

RAMI JARRAH, Journalist/Activist: In the center of the city, what we are seeing is an escalation, so, mainly the marketplaces, the local, heavily populated residential areas are being attacked.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As a result, the World Food Program reported today that conditions are rapidly getting worse.

BETTINA LUESCHER, Spokeswoman, World Food Program: We are extremely concerned about the situation on the ground. We are worried about access and supply routes from the north to eastern Aleppo that have been cut off. We are making every effort to get food to the people.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Desperate to escape, tens of thousands of Syrians are trying to flee the short, but difficult distance north to Turkey, only to find the border cordoned off.

WILLIAM SPINDLER, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees: Many people are not being allowed to cross the border, and we are asking Turkey to open its border to all civilians from Syria who are fleeing danger and seeking international protection.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over the last few years, the Turks have already taken in some 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey’s foreign minister said today his government has started taking in some of the 50,000 Syrians massed at the border, but he warned that influx could become a torrent.

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU, Foreign Minister, Turkey (through interpreter): We admitted 10,000, but for the others, we will set up camps on the other side of the border. We can only let them through in a controlled fashion. If airstrikes continue, the refugee flood could reach 100,000 or even one million.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Russia insisted today there is no credible evidence that its airstrikes have caused civilian deaths.

But Rami Jarrah says the view on the ground in Aleppo is decidedly different.

RAMI JARRAH: There is extreme fear amongst the civilians there. They are totally disabling the movement there. So, if there is any small form of commerce or sort of business trade that is happening in these areas that people can live off, they are also destroying that. And they are scaring the rest of the civilians there.

They are willing to hit hospitals, willing to hit local councils, aid communities, the civil defense, for example. Then they are willing to kill anyone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Underscoring that point, a humanitarian group calling itself Syria Civil Defense posted these images online showing the aftermath of a Russian attack on a refugee camp in northern Aleppo. At least five people were killed.

The fierce bombardment has also taken a heavy toll elsewhere, according to humanitarian activist Mohammad Al-Hamseh. He’s witnessed the scope of Russia’s aerial onslaught firsthand farther south in the town of Talbiseh, near the city of Homs.

MOHAMMAD AL-HAMSEH, Humanitarian Activist (through interpreter): Russian planes are bombarding in the morning and evening, inflicting damage to civilians here. They are killing and hurting civilians daily and also bombing what are supposed to be safe areas in the town of Talbiseh.

In regards to the humanitarian situation, it is very, very bad. There is no way for any food or supplies to reach this area, from sugar to flour to oil or gasoline.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Faced with this escalation, the U.N.-backed Syrian peace talks in Geneva stalled last week.

In Washington today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow’s military campaign in Syria has jeopardized any prospect for peace.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Russia’s activities in Aleppo and in the region right now are making it much more difficult to be able to come to the table and be able to have a serious conversation. And we have called on Russia, and we call on Russia again, to join in the effort to bring about an immediate cease-fire and to bring about full humanitarian access.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

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