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Turkey steps up involvement in Syria conflict

Oncupinar, Turkey: Turkey has stepped up its role in the Syrian conflict by entering the country to help thousands of fleeing Syrians while saying Turkey is under threat and signalling it is ready to join the military fight with the US coalition.

Aid trucks and ambulances entered Syria from Turkey on Sunday to help tens of thousands of people who had fled an escalating Assad government assault on Aleppo, as air strikes targeted villages on the road linking the city to the Turkish border.

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Assad forces gain ground in Aleppo

Syrian soldiers enter the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa near Aleppo, potentially cutting off rebel forces from their supply lines in Turkey.

Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo – Syria's largest city before the war – are still home to 350,000 people.

Aid workers had said the rebel-held regions could soon fall to the government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said air strikes – thought to be from Russian planes – hit villages north of Aleppo on Sunday, including Bashkoy, Haritan and Anadan.

​The latter two villages are near the road to Turkey.

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Russia's intervention has tipped the balance of the war in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reversing the rebels' gains last year. Advances by the Syrian army and allied militias, including Iranian fighters, are threatening to cut the rebel-held zones of Aleppo off from Turkish supply lines.

"In some parts of Aleppo, the Assad regime has cut the north-south corridor . . . Turkey is under threat," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by the Hurriyet newspaper as telling reporters on his plane after a visit to Latin America.

"We don't want to fall into the same mistake in Syria as in Iraq," he said, recounting how Turkey's Parliament denied a US request to use its territory for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"It's important to see the horizon. What's going on in Syria can only go on for so long. At some point, it has to change."

Asked if Turkey could manage a sudden development in Syria, Mr Erdogan said: "You don't talk about these things. When necessary, you do what's needed. Right now, our security forces are prepared for all possibilities."

Turkey has given refuge to civilians fleeing Syria throughout the conflict, but is under pressure from the US to secure the border more tightly, and, from Europe, to stem the onward flow of migrants.

It is sheltering more than 2.5 million Syrians, the world's largest refugee population.

However, at the Oncupinar gate, which has been largely shut for nearly a year, the newest arrivals are being shepherded into camps on the Syrian side, where Turkey says they are safe for now.

The governor of Oncupinar said on Saturday about 35,000 people had reached the border within 48 hours.

"If needed, we will let those brothers in," Mr Erdogan was quoted as saying.

Aid officials in Oncupinar said they were focusing on getting aid to the Syrian side of the border, where Turkish agencies had set up new shelters.

"We're extending our efforts inside Syria to supply shelter, food and medical assistance to people. We are already setting up another camp," an official from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation said.

At a camp in Bab al-Salam, on the Syrian side of the border, children played in the muddy lanes between rows of tents lashed by rain. Some tents were ripped and caked with mud, but others appeared to be newly set up.

A flag of the opposition Free Syrian Army fluttered over the road leading towards the Syrian city of Azaz, along which many of the displaced had travelled in recent days. Opposition fighters armed with Kalashnikovs wandered nearby.

"Syria is finished now," said Dilel Cumali, who has been at the camp for the past month. "All we want is to get inside Turkey."

The United Arab Emirates said it was ready to send ground troops into Syria as part of an international coalition fighting Islamic State, provided Washington took the lead, echoing a recent offer made by fellow Sunni Arab Gulf power Saudi Arabia.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey's armed forces had full authority to counter any threats to the country's national security.

However, senior officials have said the NATO member does not intend to mount any unilateral incursion into Syria.

Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, said on Saturday it would send any invading forces home "in coffins".

Reuters, Bloomberg

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