BEIRUT – A wave of displacement that has seen around 700,000 people flee a regime offensive in Syria’s Idlib region is the biggest of the 9-year-old conflict, the United Nations said Tuesday.
“In just 10 weeks, since 1 December, some 690,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Idlib and surrounding areas,” a spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
“This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago,” David Swanson said.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people since it erupted following the brutal repression of popular demonstrations demanding regime change.
More than half of Syria’s population had already been displaced by the nine years of conflict, but the latest regime offensive against the last rebel enclave in the country has sent these numbers soaring.
Idlib province and its surroundings have been a dead end for many people previously displaced by Russian-backed regime operations against former rebel strongholds across the country.
Turkey, which already hosts more than 3 million refugees, fears a massive fresh influx from Syria and has kept its border closed to the newly displaced people in Idlib.
The exodus, which has seen endless convoys of families with their mattresses stacked on trucks crisscross the war-torn province, coincides with a bitter winter.
Snowfall in some regions and subzero temperatures are raising fears of a major humanitarian catastrophe and prompting the United Nations to make an urgent appeal for shelter solutions.
“Existing camps and settlements of internally displaced persons are overcrowded, and shelter in existing houses is getting scarce,” the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.
“Many schools and mosques are filled with displaced families, and even finding a place in an unfinished building has become close to impossible,” it said.
According to U.N. figures, the Syrian conflict has caused the greatest displacement crisis in the world, with 5.5 fleeing the country to become refugees and more than 6 million others displaced within Syria.
The Syrian war is considered to have caused the biggest wave of displacement since World War II.
Also on Tuesday, rebels shot down a Syrian military helicopter in Idlib on Tuesday, killing its crew members in a fiery crash, while the government kept up its relentless bombing campaign on the opposition-held region, with an airstrike in which seven civilians died, activists and news reports said.
The violence came as government troops moved closer to capturing the last rebel-controlled section of a strategic highway linking southern and northern Syria, which would bring the road under the full control of President Bashar Assad’s forces for the first time since 2012.
The Syrian helicopter gunship was shot down by insurgents amid fighting near the village of Nairab as rebels, backed by Turkish artillery, tried to retake it after losing it last week, according to opposition activists.
Associated Press video showed the helicopter spiraling from the sky and breaking up as fire poured from its fuselage, just before it crashed. Two bodies could be seen on the ground.
Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that the pilot and two others aboard were killed, while opposition activists reported that only two crew members were on board.
Hours later, a Syrian airstrike hit the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, killing seven people and wounding nearly two dozen, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike killed 12 civilians, half of them children, and wounded about 30.
Opposition activists said the airstrike on Idlib, home to about 800,000 people, was carried out in response to the downing of the helicopter.
The fighting recently escalated with two separate clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops, killing 13 on each side, including five Turkish soldiers who were killed Monday.
Turkey, a main backer of the rebels, has rolled armored vehicles into Idlib, apparently to prevent government forces from reaching the border areas with Turkey. The country is home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and is concerned about more streaming in.
Turkey’s defense minister said Ankara has as many as four observation posts and two military positions in Syrian government-controlled territory, warning that Turkish soldiers were under orders to retaliate forcefully to any attacks.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in the interview that Turkey would not vacate any of its 12 observation posts in Idlib.
“In the event of any action against them, they have been given instructions to retaliate even more powerfully,” he said.
The Turkish Defense Ministry tweeted that more than 50 Syrian government troops were “neutralized” in Idlib province, without giving details of the circumstances. The claim could not be independently verified and military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Syrian army said the Turkish threats “will not dissuade the (Syrian) army from continuing its operations in Idlib and western Aleppo province to cleanse them of terrorism.” It warned that the military is ready to respond to the “aggression of Turkish occupiers.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned Assad’s government that it will “pay a very, very heavy price” for attacks on Turkish troops.
At a speech in Ankara, he said he would explain Turkey’s next steps in Idlib province at a ruling party meeting Wednesday.
During a trip to Montenegro, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged Russia and Iran to halt “the regime’s aggression.”
He said the offensive in Idlib was threatening Turkey’s relations with Russia.
“There have been very important results from our cooperation, but unfortunately the regime’s attacks in Idlib, killing civilians and attacking our troops, have begun to do a great deal of damage to this partnership,” he told a news conference.
Cavusoglu added that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would talk by telephone.
Talks between Russian and Turkish officials about the escalation in Idlib ended Monday. Erdogan’s office said the Russian delegation was told that attacks on Turkish posts in Idlib must stop immediately and promised to retaliate to further attacks.
The Observatory reported that Syrian troops have secured the highway that starts in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan, and runs all the way north to the city of Aleppo. Its capture is vital for Syria’s economy as well as for moving troops.
An unidentified Syrian military official was quoted by pro-government media as saying that they still have to capture five villages before securing the highway, known as the M5.
The highway’s capture will mark another victory for Assad, whose forces have been making solid gains since the end of 2015 with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iran-backed fighters.
For the past three years, government forces have been capturing parts of the 450-kilometer (280-mile) highway that links the country’s four largest cities.