Less than a day after Russian warplanes continued their bombing campaign in northwest Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his party's parliamentary group in Ankara Wednesday that he is "is determined to transform Idlib into a safe place at any cost for the sake of both Turkey and the region's people."
Erdogan's statement that a cross-border operation into Idlib is just "a matter of time," follows in the wake of a call by the U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock for an immediate cease-fire in Syria.
Nearly 900,000 people have been displaced in the battled northwest of the country since December — the vast majority women and children.
"The biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first," Lowcock said after government warplanes destroyed two hospitals.
After Russian airstrikes knocked out the al-Firdous and al-Kinana hospitals in the northern outskirts of Aleppo, putting them out of service, Lowcock warned of the severe risk of disease outbreaks and deaths.
"Many children suffer from anemia and yellowing of the face due to lack of food and loss of appetite caused by the constant bombing," said Ahlam al-Rasheed, an Arabic-language teacher who ran a women's center Maarat al-Nouman, a provincial city in Idlib retaken earlier this month by government forces.
"What I see is continuous waves of displacement of hundreds of thousands of families, accumulating on the roads, to an extent we have not seen before — tens of thousands of cars are loaded with luggage heading to the unknown," al-Rasheed said. "There is no place to change clothes or showers, and women are giving birth in the open."
The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, in Cairo is raising the alarm about dire conditions faced by women and girls as the humanitarian crisis unfolds in northwest Syria.
Since December 2019, UNFPA has had to close seven service delivery points serving 13,000 people, and life-saving services to women and girls in the area have been suspended.
"The mass displacement, coupled with the disruption in services due to the damage wrought on service delivery centers, places the lives of countless women and girls at risk, further disrupting the ability of the humanitarian community to deliver much-needed services," Samir Aldarabi, UNFPA communications adviser for Arab States, said. "There are reports of pregnant women being unable to receive essential medical care, including assisted deliveries and cesarean sections due to lack of access to medical facilities."
The amount of firepower directed at areas of Idlib and Aleppo, where rebels have resisted regime control, helps explain the recent flood of refugees.
"During the first half of February, our teams were able to rescue 353 people, including 96 children and 46 women, as the attacks increased on civilians and their homes," said Sayeed Mousa Zaidan, spokesman for the area's civilian defense force commonly known as the "White Helmets."
“Since the start of 2020, Russian and regime warplanes and artillery launched thousands of attacks with more than 11,126 ammunition and projectiles on civilian targets in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama, including 2,201 airstrikes, 32 internationally prohibited cluster bomb attacks, 605 barrel bombs from regime helicopters, in addition to more than 8,000 missiles and artillery shells,” Zaidan said.
Ankara's new threat to enter the Syrian fray follows the collapse of the September 2018 agreement with Russia to turn Idlib province into a de-escalation zone.
"A simple decision by Russia to stop its aggression would cause this problem to cease," said Ghassan Hitto, the first head of an interim government established by the Syrian opposition National Coalition in 2013.
Turkey already hosts more than 3.7 million Syrians, the largest number of refugees in the world.
"So it's not a surprise that Turkey is looking for other solutions besides opening the gate and allowing another million or two million Syrians inside [their borders]," Hitto said in a telephone interview from Istanbul. "This is not in the national interest of Turkey."
Erdogan's comments Wednesday reflect frustration over ongoing talks with Russian officials on ending the bloodshed in northwestern Syria. The Turkish leader told lawmakers his military "had made all preparations to carry out its operation plans in Idlib."
Hitto said it is a mistake to view Ankara's threats as mere bluster, but it makes sense that Turkey still entertains some hope for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
"It's not so easy to throw the first punch, it's too costly," Hitto said. "Nobody in their right mind would want a direct confrontation with the Russians."
While the U.N. Security Council has yet to take action on the crisis, the European Union Monday sanctioned another eight businessmen and two entities, adding to a list of more than 270 people and 71 companies, for their support of the Syrian regime.
"Their activities directly benefit the [President Bashar al-]Assad regime, including through projects located on lands expropriated from persons displaced by the conflict," Maria Daniela Lenzu, an EU press officer in Brussels, said.
The named individuals are now targeted by a travel ban and will have their assets frozen, adding to sanctions currently in place, including an oil embargo, and export restrictions on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression.
"This important measure reduces Assad’s ability to buy weapons and gas for his military as they continue to kill civilians, destroy cities and bomb hospitals," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a political commentator and publisher of the closely followed Syrian opposition news portal "all4syria."
"This is the kind of heavy pressure that is needed to bring the regime to accept a cease-fire and a political solution," he said.