AMMAN: More than 800,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have fled their homes during a Russian-backed Syrian military campaign to clear the opposition in northwest Syria since Dec 1, a senior UN spokesperson said on Thursday.

The exodus is expected to continue, with thousands of people on the move as whole towns and communities flee to the safety of areas near the Turkish border, David Swanson said. “Tragically, the number of people displaced, the vast majority of them women and children, has now surpassed 800,000,” Swanson said.

Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages since early December in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias and aimed at clearing the opposition.

“Residents are fleeing by the thousands in open trucks or by foot; often at night to escape detection despite the bitter cold temperatures,” Swanson, the UN regional spokesman for Syria, said.

UN officials say the region is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. Those on the run in Idlib and adjoining Aleppo province are joining close to 400,000 people who fled earlier bouts of fighting to the safety of camps near the Turkish border.

The latest offensive has brought the military campaign closer to heavily populated northern Idlib along the border, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.

Families fleeing air strikes and advancing troops in Idlib province are sleeping rough in streets and olive groves, and burning toxic bundles of rubbish to stay warm in the biting winter weather, aid workers say.

Turkey’s warning to Syria

Turkey will use force against rebel groups violating a ceasefire in Syria’s northwest Idlib region, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday, in an apparent response to Russian criticism.

Turkey has allied with some rebels in Idlib opposed to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and has boosted its troops, arms and equipment in the region after 13 of its soldiers were killed by Syrian government forces in just over a week.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his NATO-member military would strike Russia-backed Syrian forces if another Turkish soldier was hurt, and he blamed Moscow for targeting civilians.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2020