An estimated 300,000 residents remaining in Aleppo risk being completely cut off from humanitarian supply routes if the Syrian government and allied forces succeed in surrounding the city, the UN warned on Tuesday.
In a briefing paper, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that if regime advances continue, between 100,000 and 150,000 people could flee toward the Kurdish enclave of Afrin or rural areas in Aleppo province. Already, said OCHA, their programming in the province had been adversely affected by the regime's offensive, which has employed Shia militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and is backed by Russian air power.
Prior to the start of Syria's civil war in 2011, Aleppo was the country's largest city, home to some 2 million people. On Monday, the UN said that some 30,000 civilians had already fled the city and other areas in northern Syria in the past week alone. It estimated that 80 percent of those were women and children.
"I am gravely concerned about this situation in Aleppo for tens of thousands of people who have been forced to flee the danger and the closing space for supplies… to reach them," the UN's humanitarian coordinator Stephen O'Brien told reporters on Tuesday in New York. The best humanitarian response, said O'Brien, was "for the bombing to stop" — a reference to the hundreds of airstrikes that Russia has unleashed in Aleppo this month.
O'Brien said that some refugees from the thousands that have gathered near Turkey's border are beginning to flee elsewhere in Syria, including to adjacent Idlib governorate. Turkey, which already houses upwards of 2.5 million Syrian refugees, has indicated it cannot accommodate tens of thousands more. At a press conference in Geneva, William Spindler, spokesperson for the UN's refugee agency, urged Ankara to reconsider, and allow those displaced by fighting in Aleppo to enter.
"Many people are not being allowed to cross the border," said Spindler. "We are asking Turkey to open its border to all civilians in Syria fleeing danger in need of international protection as they have done [in the past]."
Also on Tuesday, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that 23,000 newly displaced people were "in urgent need of emergency shelter and support," near the Bab el Salamah border crossing with Turkey. The group added that three hospitals it supports, including one in Aleppo, had been struck by bombs in recent weeks.
Despite the speed of their flight, the UN has been able to reach some of those massed near the Turkish border. On Tuesday, the UN's World Food Programme said in a statement that it hoped to reach "21,000 people with more food to meet the urgent needs of the new wave of displaced people."
"The situation is quite volatile and fluid in northern Aleppo with families on the move seeking safety," said Jako Kern, WFP's Syria country director. "We are extremely concerned as access and supply routes from the north to eastern Aleppo city and surrounding areas are now cut off, but we are making every effort to get enough food in place for all those in need, bringing it in through the remaining open border crossing point from Turkey."
Aid workers say a full siege of Aleppo could create a massive humanitarian catastrophe. In its briefing, OCHA highlighted eastern Aleppo city, where most residents already require assistance. The government and allied forces, it wrote, "are likely to continue to encircle and eventually cut off eastern Aleppo city from cross-border assistance."