Thousands of Syrians, mostly women and children, remain stuck at Turkish borders after fleeing offensive in Aleppo. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, on the 9th of February 2016 called on Turkey to admit all civilians who are fleeing danger and seeking international protection. Tens of thousands of Syrians escaped intense air strikes in the northern province of Aleppo. Recent months have been dominated by intensive Russian air strikes and attacks on civilians have become a near-everyday occurrence. At least 500 reported killed in the province this month.
Turkey has already taken in more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees over the past five years hosting the largest number of refugees in the world. Its borders are considered the gateway to safety, leaving many stranded across them. The Turkish government has recently expressed frustration over the worsening migrant crisis saying that it has now reached the end of its “capacity to absorb”. Turkey applies strict controls on admission of refugees while maintaining an open door policy for those fleeing immediate harm to their lives.
The United Nations’ refugee agency has called on Turkey to open the border to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing a government offensive in Aleppo province, who are stranded near the Bab al-Salameh crossing. According to UN officials half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times, making Syria the largest displacement crisis globally. More than a quarter million Syrians lost their lives since the onset of the crisis in 2011. Protests escalated into civil war and the armed rebellion led to the rise of Islamists and jihadists, the so-called Islamic State, whose brutal tactics caused global outrage.
Today UK, U.S and Russia are leading air strikes in order to regain rebel parts of the country. Situation is worsening following the intensified Russian air operation in the province of Aleppo, an area divided between government and rebel control for years. Moreover according to ICRC the harshening of winter is pushing people’s resilience to the limits.
The United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from March 2012 until February 2016 registered a total of 13.5M Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance; 4.6M fled the country and 6.6M have been displaced within the borders due to violence. Internally displaced the population struggles to survive and they are chasing after charities. The displacement of refugees is across several neighbour countries and Europe.
Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu attended the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs on the 6th of February 2016. The prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus envisaged a further 600,000 refugees at the borders raising criticism on the Russian tactics. European member states requested immediate steps from Ankara to improve the situation for refugees in Turkey deploying without delay the €3 billion pledged by the European Union.
Turkey is currently under pressure to allow in 30,000 Syrian refugees stranded on its border. Migrants have inflicted a “huge strain” on the country’s economy, and called on the international community to assist Ankara in handling the burgeoning crisis. The main route from the north into Aleppo has been cut off and humanitarian aid cannot be efficiently delivered. The current situation is leading to a severe geopolitical turmoil.
Turkey is facing multiple problems and an internal division. The Russian power play in Syria vanished Turkish hopes for instituting a no-fly zone on the other side of the Syrian border and as Syria burns, Turkey’s Kurdish problem is getting worse. There is an increasing concern that the PYD’s success in Syria will dangerously strengthen the PKK in its fight against Turkey.
The Assad regime received support on the ground by the Iranian militias and the intensified Russian aerial bombardment led the United States to lose control over the entire operation. Within the next weeks the Assad’s bombing campaign will continue costing the lives of many other civilians.
The likelihood of Aleppo becoming the “Sarajevo” of Syria is increasing on a daily basis.
Israel’s defense minister has accused Turkey of purchasing oil from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, thereby funding the militants’ activities.
Speaking in Athens, Greece, Moshe Yaalon disclosed that IS had “enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time.” Speaking to reporters after a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Mr Yaalon further disclosed that “its up to Turkey, the Turkish government, the Turkish leadership, to decide whether they want to be part of any kind of cooperation to fight terrorism,” adding, “this is not the case so far. As you know, Daesh (Islamic State) enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time. I hope that it will be ended.” Mr Yaalon also alleged that Turkey had “permitted jihadists to move from Europe to Syria and Iraq and and back.”
Turkey has denied allowing IS smuggling. Recently, the United States also rejected Russian claims that Turkish government officials were in league with the militants. While last month, US State Department officials rejected Russian allegations of Turkish government involvement, a state department spokesman did disclose that IS oil was being smuggled into Turkey via middlemen.
Efforts by Israel and Turkey to repair damaged ties already hit a set back earlier this month over demands for compensation for the deaths of ten Turkish activists on a ship that was carrying pro-Palestinian activists in 2010. They were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos who intercepted a flotilla that was trying to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza. In December, senior Israeli and Turkish officials met in a bid to try to repair relations, raising hopes of progress in negotiations to import Israeli natural gas.
IS has captured swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, which includes operating oil fields that are now under the militant group’s control.
On Monday, 14 December, Egyptian officials reported that so far, they have found no evidence of terrorism or other illegal action linked to the 31 October crash of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai, which killed all 224 people on board. The plane came down en route to Russia from the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
While Russian and Western governments have previously reported that the Airbus A321, which was operated by Metrojet, was likely brought down by a bomb, with a group linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group claiming responsibility and stating that it had managed to smuggle an explosive on board, Egypt’s civil aviation ministry has indicated that it has completed a preliminary report on the crash, adding that it had so far found no evidence of a criminal act. In a statement, the ministry disclosed that “the technical investigative committee has so far not found anything indicating any illegal intervention or terrorist action.” Russia had previously reported that a bomb brought down the Metrojet Airbus, after finding what it said were “traces of foreign explosives” on the debris. It has vowed to “find and punish” the perpetrators.”
In response to Monday’s findings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov re-iterated that “our experts concluded this was a terrorist attack.”
What is known is that the plane crash has affected Egypt’s tourism industry, which is a cornerstone of the economy. According to the country’s tourism minister, tourism revenues for 2015 will be at least 10% below last year’s. The plane took off from Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort that is popular with British and Russian holidaymakers. Furthermore, the incident has raised serious questions about airport security, which has prompted both Britain and Russia to suspend flights into Sharm el-Sheikh. Egypt is now also facing a two-year Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, which has killed hundreds of soldiers and police. Shortly after the 31 October plane crash, IS stated that the bombing was in response to Russian airstrikes in Syria. Last month, IS’ magazine published a photo of what it claimed was the improvised bomb that brought down the airliner. The picture in Dabiqu showed a Schweppes Gold soda can and what appears to be a detonator and a switch.
Although it may seem a strange route and unnecessarily long detour to access Europe via Russia and the border to northern Norway, it has its advantages. The convenience of this route is that it bypasses a lot of the strict border controls of the normal routes. The route has been used by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities, and it’s not just refugees fleeing from war or oppression. It is also used by those who are, like so many, looking for better jobs and living conditions. Rather than defying the border fences of and strictly controlled crossings of southern and eastern Europe, not to mention the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, some seem to prefer the so called ‘arctic route’ to Europe. Many of the migrants come much underdressed though and face tough challenges in the tough, northern climate. Whether or not this route has been easier than the more frequented travel routes to Europe is hard to say.
After flying via Moscow to Murmansk migrants must first try make their way from there, some 136 miles north, past barren tundra, an area of Russian military bases and heavily armed checkpoints, to the small mining town of Nickel. There, refugees face yet another challenge: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across because it is considered human trafficking. Because of this migrants have taken to crossing the border by bicycle. The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia’s Northwest — any size or condition is accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have made business of this, and even arrange package deals of minivans and bicycles.
News of this arctic route has spread and the fact that the crossing is actually possible has led to an increase in migrants coming this way. The small town of Nickel has seen the stream of people coming north and a lone hotel there has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis and others have filled the hotel’s 30 rooms some nights and yet more migrants are left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming and offered temporary refugee status to the migrants. But the growing wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality and as the weeks have gone by, the influx has grown larger than what can be handled. In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border, mayor Rune Rafaelson, has said local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year’s end — in effect doubling the entire region’s population. Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects that the Kremlin is driving the current influx, as neighbouring Finland – a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia —faces no similar migrant surge. Storskog border crossing has seen more than 4,000 refugees arrive so far this year, the majority of them riding bicycles. Norway has started building new refugee accommodation at the airport in the nearby town of Kirkenes, where the refugees can stay before being flown south. While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising, and with more than 1000 migrants per week, it has changed the hospitable attitude of the Norwegians.
With the tension between Norway and Russia the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension. The arctic route has been known among the migrants as a safe route to Europe, and relatively easy with the checkpoints as the Russians don’t bother anyone who wants to cross over to Norway, but it will be far less safe as the weather steadily gets colder. Besides this, Norway, like so many other countries in Europa, is not interested in taking on more refugees than it can handle. Authorities long refrained from closing this crossing point as it would possibly provoke the Russian government, but now have to consider it an alternative. That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour. Some suggest it is a provocation, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions regarding the Ukraine conflict, or creating divisions in Norway. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said, earlier in November, that closing the border will not solve any problems but the government has sent warnings to asylum seekers that they risk being sent back, not just to Russia, from where they crossed into the country, but all the way to their home countries. It has been under discussion in the last couple of weeks that the border crossing of Storskog might be closed under the seldom used “Law on Access to Certain Areas”, which was brought in by the parliament right before the German invasion in April 1940. This would partly be to control the influx and partly a diplomatic reaction towards Russia.
On Tuesday, the Egyptian government announced that it is increasing security at airports over the possibility that a Russian plane departing from a Sinai resort was brought down by a bomb late last month.
A statement released by the interior ministry disclosed that “taking into consideration all possible causes behind the plane crash, including the possibility that it was targeted by a terrorist attack, the Egyptian authorities have enhanced security measures in all airports.” The country’s’ interior ministry further disclosed on Tuesday that there was a review of screening measures for passengers and luggage, “and enhancement of search procedures for passengers and workers upon entry into the airport.” The ministry added that “security sweeps” of airplanes would be conducted as well as “reviews of flight crews’ security permits.” The release of the statement came as an Egyptian minister disclosed that a probe into the crash had yet to reach any final conclusions pertaining to the disaster. Speaking at a news conference, Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal stated that “until now the (investigation) committee has not yet arrived to any results indicating the cause of the crash.” The remarks came shortly after officials in Russia announced that a bomb had brought down the aircraft. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, disclosed Tuesday that the conclusion of Russian investigators was that a homemade bomb containing around 1 kg (2 lbs) of TNT had detonated during the flight, which caused the plane to break up in mid air. He further stated that “we can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act.”
The plane, which was flown by Russian firm Kogalymavia, came down shortly after take off from resort Sharm el-Sheikh on 31 October. All 224 people on board were killed in what is Russia’s worst air disaster. The crash prompted Britain to restrict flights to the resort, and Moscow to all Egyptian airports while barring the country’s national carrier EgyptAir from Russia.
It is now known how a bomb would have been smuggled on the plane before it set off from the popular Red Sea resort, however there have been suspicions that it was an inside job. Two security officials and an airport employee disclosed on Tuesday that Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport for questioning in connection with the downing of the Russian jet. One of the security officials has indicated that “seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.” The other security official has disclosed that CCTV footage showed a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the doomed airliner from beneath the plane on the runway. Meanwhile an employee at the airport media department has also confirmed that two members of the ground crew had been detained for questioning on Monday night. It currently remains unclear what role the employees had at the airport, which is the third largest in the country and which handles a vast number of charter and budget flights for tourists visiting the southern Sinai peninsula. In a statement however, the interior and civil aviation ministries’ media departments denied that there had been any arrests.
Separately, other sources at the airport have reported that security forces were searching for two employees who are suspected of leaving a baggage-scanning machine unattended for a period of time while passengers were boarding the Russian plane. Sources have indicated that CCTV footage is being examined in order to confirm what occurred. Sources however have reported that investigators had questioned all the airport staff involved with handling the Russian plane, its passengers and bags after the accident. So far, no arrests have been made in the search for the two employees who were believed to have stepped away from the baggage-scanning machine.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has previously stated that failures in security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport may have enabled the attack. According to Hammond, “you don’t need a sophisticated capability to get a small bomb, and that’s all you need to bring down an aircraft, a small bomb with a straightforward timer,” adding that “sadly there are many, many people who can do that. The issue is about getting it air side in an airport that is supposed to be secure…Where this points the finger is at the capability of the security on the ground at Sharm el-Sheikh.”