For Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, renewed fighting has led to “total mayhem”. He blames outside “interests and pressures” for dividing and ruining the country. At least 30,000 refugees are trying to get into Turkey, but are being kept out at gunpoint. The apostolic vicar stressed mercy for the needy in the jubilee year.
Aleppo (AsiaNews) – In Aleppo and in many areas of the province, "fighting unfortunately has begun". After several days “of calm and truce” that brought optimism among people, violence has restarted,” said Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo of the Latins.
Speaking to AsiaNews about the latest developments in Aleppo, Syria’s northern “capital”, the prelate said, “It seems that the al Nusra Front has resumed fighting, drawing in other [rebel and opposition] groups that had signed up for the truce.”
“The situation is complicated” where fighting is taking place. “Most of the city has been spared, but fighting is taking place in two districts, one Kurdish.”
“The Islamic State (IS) group and other armed groups are active” in the province. “It is total mayhem,” he said. “Everyone is fighting, and there is no positive sign.”
It is always the same thing, he noted, “Outside interests and pressures are pushing the country towards divisions and ruin.”
The recent flare-up of fighting in Aleppo province endangers the fragile ceasefire in place since 27 February. The latter led to an improvement in the humanitarian situation.
Backed by Russia, government forces have retaken areas hitherto in rebel-held areas that prevented resupplies. However, north of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, fighting involving IS and other rebels has driven more than 30,000 people towards the Turkish border.
International activists and NGOs have urged Turkish authorities to open the borders. Instead, Turkish forces have fired on those trying to cross in order to stop them from entering the country.
"Turkey is under EU pressure,” Mgr Khazen said, “to adopt a policy of containment vis-à-vis refugees. Ankara too is now afraid of extremists infiltrating its territory.”
“I can confirm that refugees are being turned back more frequently. Let us see what happens in the future." In his view, the Turkish government has "an ambiguous and negative attitude".
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest against President Bashar al-Assad. Over time, it turned into a civil war, with jihadist infiltration. With 270,000 people dead so far, and millions more displaced, it has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
The renewed violence also threatens to overshadow peace talks held in Geneva, Switzerland, under the auspices of the United Nations.
Earlier, the main Syrian opposition group said it was ready to talk to government members who had not been involved in killings, excluding President Assad himself and his closest aides.
For their part, government delegates said that the president’s fate was non-negotiable.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is mediating the talks in Geneva, on Wednesday, warned of an urgent need for the government and opposition to take steps towards a political transition.
The veteran diplomat also stressed the need to uphold the truce to allow humanitarian aid to reach every Syrian.
On the diplomatic front, Mgr Khazen noted, "a minimum step was taken with the truce. Let us hope that other small steps follow. Of course, we cannot expect the end of the conflict, but we are confident that they will agree to talk. This would be a great thing.”
Citing a Chinese philosopher, he said, “Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For the rest, it is up to international powers to do it . . . build a peace plan for the future, and stop this long trail of blood. The truce was the first step."
Against such a background of war and violence, Aleppo Christians continue to undertake actions of mercy during the Jubilee Year, thus responding to Pope Francis’ appeal.
"In all the churches of the various rites, especially in our pastoral centres, moral and corporal works of mercy are being carried out,” the prelate said.
“St Francis parish has a welfare facility that hands out basic necessities – food, water, and clothing –and provides medical care and education for the young.”
“The good thing is that scores of volunteers work at the centre,” the prelate noted. “Not only are there young people, as it is usually the case, but also older men and women who help prepare and hand out stuff.”
“At a time of darkness, these small lit candles offer some hope.”