ANKARA, Turkey—As tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing violence massed at Turkey’s border, Turkish and German leaders pledged Monday to redouble diplomatic efforts to end the fighting around the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo and prevent more refugees making their way into Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after talks with Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that she was “not just appalled but horrified” by the suffering caused by the bombing in Syria, primarily by Russia.
Merkel said Turkey and Germany would push at the United Nations for all sides to adhere to a U.N. resolution passed in December that calls for an immediate halt to attacks on civilians in Syria.
Merkel was in Ankara for talks on how to reduce the influx of migrants into Europe, mostly via a perilous boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. Turkey’s coast guard said Monday that another 27 migrants had died after their boat capsized in the Bay of Edremit while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
Her visit came after a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive around Aleppo sent up to 35,000 Syrians fleeing toward the border with Turkey in recent days.
Turkey has taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees since the conflict began, and authorities say the country has reached its capacity to absorb refugees. The border crossing remained closed for a fourth day on Monday and aid groups continued to provide assistance to the Syrians massed at a displaced persons camp nearby.
Syrian army troops meanwhile, recaptured another village north of Aleppo on Monday, bringing troops and allied militiamen to within a few miles (kilometers) of the Turkish border.
Aleppo “is de facto under siege. We are on the verge of a new human tragedy,” Davutoglu said.
“No one should excuse or show tolerance toward the Russian air attacks that amount to ethnic massacres by saying, ‘Turkey takes care of the Syrian refugees anyway,'” Davutoglu said. “No one can expect Turkey to take on the burden on its own.”
Added Merkel: “We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people by bombing—primarily from the Russian side.”
“Under such circumstances, it’s hard for peace talks to take place, and so this situation must be brought to an end quickly,” Merkel said.
Hussein Bakri, an official in the interim government set up by the Syrian opposition, said more than 70,000 people had been displaced from Aleppo and urged the international community to “shoulder the responsibility of protecting the Syrian people by stopping the Russian bombing.”
“If the situation continues like this, it will lead to the displacement of up to 400,000 people from Aleppo Province and from Aleppo City,” Bakri said. “It is clear that the Russians are aiming for the encirclement and to lay siege to Aleppo as has happened in other parts of Syria.”
The EU has urged Turkey to open its border and let in the thousands fleeing the Aleppo onslaught. But Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said after a Cabinet meeting on Monday that Turkey’s priority is to keep the fleeing Syrians within the borders of their country “and provide them with assistance there.”
Merkel and Davutoglu said Germany and Turkey would work together to provide aid to the refugees at the border.
Another top Turkish government official reacted angrily to the EU pressure on Turkey to open its doors to the Syrian refugees, yet seal them for migrants trying to leave Turkey and reach the EU via the water crossing into Greece.
“On the one hand they say ‘Open your borders, take everyone in,’ and on the other hand they say, ‘Close your border, don’t let anyone through,'” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said. “Why don’t you take them in?”
At the Turkish border gate of Oncupinar, opposite Syria’s Bab al-Salameh crossing, several dozen Syrian refugees waited on Monday in the hope that it would be opened so that their friends or family could cross into Turkey.
“If Aleppo falls, people will come out in the millions to Turkey wearing nothing but the clothes on their backs,” said Aleppo native Yasser, who declined to give his surname out of concerns for his safety. “We thank Turkey because they have stood with us more than our Arab brothers but we ask that this border gate be opened in both directions.”
Turkish officials have not offered a reason for keeping the border closed but aid workers said that opening the gate would spur more arrivals.
“We are worried that opening the gates will lead to an increase in refugees,” said Burak Kacacaoglu, a spokesman for the non-governmental Islamic charity group, Humanitarian Relief Foundation. “We are concerned about the airstrikes which are increasingly targeting civilian areas. This is what causes refugees.”
The deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria was further highlighted by a United Nations report on Monday that said thousands of detainees held by the Syrian government have been executed, beaten to death or otherwise left to die on a scale that amounts to “extermination” under international law. The U.N.-backed Commission of Inquiry on Syria called for “targeted sanctions” against high-ranking Syrian officials responsible for such crimes, but did not name any suspects. It also documented mass executions by the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.