Syria presses Idlib assault; mass displacement feared

Trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians in northern Idlib. — Courtesy photo

BEIRUT — Syrian troops pressed an offensive Tuesday on the country's last major rebel enclave where the mass displacement of civilians is sparking fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Around 900,000 people have been forced from their homes and shelters in less than three months, leaving huge numbers to sleep rough in the thick of winter.

Children have died of exposure in snow-covered camps and the United Nations has warned that the crisis could worsen if no ceasefire is reached to facilitate the relief effort.

"Over the past four days alone, some 43,000 newly displaced people have fled western Aleppo where fighting has been particularly fierce," UN spokesman David Swanson told AFP.

Since the start of February, the displacement figure was a staggering 300,000, he said.

The wave of displacement is the biggest since the start of the civil war nearly nine years ago. It is largest exodus of civilains since World War II.

"The violence in northwest Syria is indiscriminate. Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit," the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Mark Lowcock, said on Monday.

'Only option'

He said that basic infrastructure was falling apart, that health facilities were being destroyed and that the risk of disease outbreaks was high.

"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.

Russia, the main foreign broker in Syria, has vetoed countless resolutions on the conflict.

"The only option is a ceasefire," Lowcock said.

According to Save The Children, seven children — including a baby only seven months old — have died from freezing temperatures and bad living conditions in the camps.

"We're worried that the death toll will increase given the absolutely inhumane living conditions that women and children are finding themselves in, with sub-zero temperatures, no roof over their heads and no warm clothes," the charity's Syria director Sonia Khush said.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the temperature dipped to minus 7 Celsius in some areas last week.

"Those families who could take some of their belongings as they fled from their homes are reportedly burning whatever they could find, including pieces of furniture and whatever can be spared to stay warm for a short while," it said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for the establishment of humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians to prevent further loss of life.

"As the government offensive continues and people are forced into smaller and smaller pockets, I fear even more people will be killed," she said in a statement.

There was no sign of any let-up in the violence, however, with President Bashar Al-Assad promising on Monday that government forces would press on with their offensive.

"The battle for the liberation of the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib continues, regardless of all the hot air coming out of the north," Assad said, in reference to warnings by Turkey.

In recent weeks, Syrian troops and allied forces backed by Russia have stepped up their offensive against jihadists and their rebel allies in Idlib and the neighboring province of Aleppo.

They have reconquered swathes of Idlib as well as key areas that have secured the strategic M5 highway connecting the country's four largest cities as well as the entire surroundings of Aleppo city for the first time since 2012.

Key mountain

"We have won a victory over the fear they tried to instil in our hearts... but we are fully aware that this liberation is not the end of the war," Assad said in a televised speech.

"But this liberation definitely does mean we have rubbed their faces in the dirt, as a prelude to their total defeat, which will come sooner or later."

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces made fresh gains in western Aleppo province on Tuesday.

"Regime forces are trying to push toward the Sheikh Barakat mountain," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organization.

If they capture the area, government forces will control a vantage point over vast swathes of land in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including areas where tens of thousands of displaced people live in sprawling camps.

Deadly incidents between government forces and rebel-backer Turkey have raised tensions near Syria's northern border, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to threaten Damascus.

Turkey, which already hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country with more than 3.5 million people, is unwilling to open its borders to a new wave. — AFP