Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, Feb. 15, 2020. Syrian troops are waging an offensive in the last rebel stronghold.
Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, Feb. 15, 2020. Syrian troops are waging an offensive in the last rebel stronghold.

LONDON - Hundreds of thousands of civilians, many women and children, are trapped in northwestern Syria with little food or adequate shelter for sub-zero temperatures in what the United Nations says is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the region since war erupted in Syria almost nine years ago. Dozens of makeshift medical facilities and aid warehouses have been struck in relentless sorties by Syrian and Russian jets, say UN officials and independent watchdogs.  

Despite calls for an immediate halt to a Russian-backed offensive by both U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there were little signs Monday that either Damascus or Moscow are ready to acquiesce and call off the assault on Idlib, the last remaining rebel holdout in the war-savaged country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to cease the offensive on the last rebel-held region or face direct intervention by Turkish forces. The threat was delivered in a phone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

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The Turkish leader, who also had a phone conversation with President Trump Saturday, said Syrian forces should return to the demarcation lines agreed by Ankara and Moscow in 2018. “Otherwise we will handle this before the end of February,” Erdogan said. But President Assad said Sunday that the “Syrian people are determined to liberate all Syrian territories,” and he accused “terrorists” in Idlib of using residents as “human shields.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Munich Security Conference Sunday that Idlib remained the last hotbed of “terrorism . . . on the west bank of the Euphrates” and added that “victory over terrorists is unavoidable.” Turkey wants Damascus to return to the de-escalation brokered in 2018 by Moscow. But that deal has been routinely broken with all sides failing to observe a ceasefire. Much of the province is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has al-Qaida ties, but other rebel groups, allied with Turkey, are also present.

According to the UN and independent relief organizations, at least 800,000 Syrians have fled in the past few months towards the Turkish border, which remains closed to them. Since the Syria conflict erupted, Turkey has taken in more than three million Syrian refugees but refuses to accept more.  Erdoğan, whose troops and Syrian rebel allies have carved out a swathe of territory in northwest Syria, is in the process of returning some of the Syrians back, using land snatched from Kurdish forces.  

In this photo released Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign in the Rashideen neighborhood, in Aleppo province, Syria.

Syrian government forces captured more than 30 villages north and northwest of Aleppo Sunday and have secured the main highway now linking Aleppo with the Syrian capital, Damascus. U.N. officials say about 150,000 refugees fled fighting in the last four days. The military campaign has escalated in recent weeks and has featured heavy shelling and air raids on hospitals and markets.

David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said global values as well as global security are at stake in Idlib. “The catastrophe in Idlib is a symptom of the utter failure of diplomacy and abandonment by the international community of Syrian civilians,” he said. And Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, says the presence of jihadists in Idlib cannot morally justify “indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population.”

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Trapped between the closed border and advancing Syrian government forces, civilians have no option but to sleep rough on ground blanketed by snow or, if lucky, secure tents supplied by the U.N. and other international relief organizations. Even with a tent, they have little warmth — stoves are dangerous to use as the tents are not vented, and firewood is in short supply, say relief workers contacted by phone.

The U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Mark Cutts, says aid agencies sent more than a thousand trucks with emergency supplies over the Turkish border into Idlib last month, but the provisions are not enough. “The scale of the crisis is enormous,” he said.

Many of the refugees in Idlib came from other war-torn provinces over the past few years, seemingly funneled there by Syrian government forces. Observers and rebel leaders have long warned — for more than two years — that Idlib was being earmarked by Assad’s strategists as a final “kill zone” of the rebellion.

“An important number of hospitals in the area have been hit and have been either partially or fully destroyed in northwest Syria in the space of just a few months” said Cristian Reynders of Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical humanitarian NGO. “What this concretely means is that as the fighting continues, wounded people have less and less chances to even access health facilities.”

As civilians cling to what shelter they can get or hunker down in towns and villages under bombardment, the fighting is intensifying, say local monitors, with more clashes reported between Turkish and Syrian soldiers.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor that collates reports from local activists, says a Turkish military observation post in Anadan in rural Aleppo has now been taken by Syrian government forces.

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It also claimed Russian battleships in the Mediterranean have been launching missile attacks on rebel positions in town of Anjara, in Aleppo province bordering Idlib. Pro-government media sources reported Monday that Assad’s forces are advancing on a Turkish-controlled airfield near Taftanaz in Idlib province, where five Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed Monday in shelling.

Local monitors and Turkish media say Turkey is dispatching more armored vehicles into northwestern Syria. According to Seth Frantzman, a Mideast analyst and author of the book “After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East,” the Turkish reinforcements may not be a sign that Turkey is preparing to counter the Syrian government advance, but more likely to “show Russia it is committed to Idlib and will keep the line and move extremists back as per the 2018 agreement.”

Damascus and Moscow have complained that Turkey has not kept its side of the 2018 bargain in which it promised to rid Idlib of jihadists.

Other analysts agree that Turkey may now be about to shift strategy on the ground in northwestern Syria in a bid to persuade Assad to hold off on his assault and to agree a new ceasefire. The only alternative would be to engage in a full-blown conflict with Syria, a move that would wreck Ankara’s relations with Moscow.  

Last week, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned all rebel groups in Idlib: “We are sending additional troops to secure and maintain the cease-fire [in Idlib]. We are going to control the area.”  “Force will be used against those disobeying the cease-fire, radicals included. All measures will be taken,” he added.“

Turkey might try its hand at drawing a new ceasefire line with Russia as forcing the Syrian army to retreat would now require a full-fledged war,” according to Turkish analyst Fehim Tastekin. Writing for the news-site Al Monitor, he said the bid might alleviate the risk of confrontation, but “the situation on the ground could spiral out of control any time.

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