Aid group the Norwegian Refugee Council yesterday warned of the “worst catastrophe” in Syria’s civil war if no ceasefire is reached for the embattled rebel bastion of Idlib.
Russia-backed regime forces have chipped away at the militant-ruled region since December, forcing almost 700,000 people to flee their homes toward the closed Turkish border.
“This is the largest displacement in the worst war of our generation,” said NRC chief Jan Egeland.
Syria’s war has already killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since the conflict started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Government loyalists have shown no sign of letting up in their latest offensive, on the rebel stronghold of some 3mn people, half of whom have already been displaced from elsewhere.
Egeland urged a ceasefire deal for the Idlib region to avert a disaster in what he described as “the world’s largest refugee camp”.
“Our fear now is that a full-on offensive could lead to the worst catastrophe of Syria’s brutal war, an out-and-out bloodbath for displaced civilians,” he said.
“Above all we need a ceasefire and talks.”
Idlib has been a refuge in recent years for people fleeing or being evacuated from previously rebel-held areas in other parts of the country.
But now that Idlib is under attack, its residents have nowhere else to go. “Turkey must be supported to offer safe passage to the women, men and children fleeing the violence across its border and into areas it controls in northern Syria,” Egeland said.
Numerous aid organisations have called for a halt to the violence in northwest Syria, where the newly displaced are sleeping in cars and in fields in often cold temperatures. “The situation is so dire today that families in desperate need of food, blankets and mattresses are being turned away from overcrowded shelters,” he said.“Rent prices have skyrocketed, and we hear reports of up to a dozen families sharing a single apartment,” Egeland added.
The UN World Health Organisation said Tuesday that the healthcare personnel were struggling to keep up.
“Increasing numbers of displaced persons are cramped in a small geographical area, putting an enormous strain on health responders,” it said.
In the rest of the region, some 72 healthcare centres have been suspended since December 1.
“This means that more than 100,000 medical outpatient consultations are suspended, nearly 11,000 trauma patients are not served every month and 1,690 major surgeries will not be performed this month, endangering patient lives,” it said.
The UN agency confirmed five separate attacks on healthcare services, which resulted in 10 deaths.
Turkey’s president accused Russia of committing “massacres” in its support of the Syrian government yesterday, escalating a war of words as more Turkish reinforcements arrived on the ground.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian regime forces “everywhere” if its soldiers come under renewed attack, but Russia hit back and accused the Turks of failing to “neutralise terrorists” in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Turkey has shored up its positions in recent days in Idlib — the last rebel bastion in Syria — with hundreds of vehicles carrying artillery and soldiers.
And a new convoy of Turkish armoured vehicles arrived yesterday in the town of Binnish, northeast of Idlib city, in a new deployment, an AFP correspondent said.
Turkish officials say they have lost 14 soldiers in the past nine days and claim to have killed scores of Syrian government troops as they try to push back forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian forces backed by Russian air strikes have pressed ahead with an offensive to retake Idlib from rebel groups that began in December, despite a 2018 deal agreed between Turkey and Russia in Sochi.
The offensive — which has retaken numerous towns and a crucial motorway — has killed hundreds of civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for safety in harsh winter conditions. Erdogan’s direct criticism of Russia is a rare move since 2015 when Turkey shot down Moscow’s fighter jet that had strayed into its airspace.
“The regime, backed by Russian forces and militants, are continuously attacking civilians, committing massacres and shedding blood,” Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling party in parliament. He said Turkey would do “whatever necessary” to push Syrian forces back behind the 12 observation posts it set up in Idlib under the Sochi deal.
“I hereby declare that we will strike regime forces everywhere from now on regardless of the Sochi deal if any tiny bit of harm comes to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere,” he added. Under the bilateral agreements, radical groups were required to withdraw from a demilitarised zone in the Idlib region held by an array of rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan spoke by phone yesterday, with the Kremlin urging Ankara to implement the Sochi deal.
The Turkish presidency confirmed the call but did not provide details. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Turkish delegation would now go to Moscow “in the next few days”.
“Continuing to work with Russia, we are working to secure a lasting ceasefire. But even if nothing results from this, our determination is clear and we will do what is necessary,”
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