The UN said Monday that 900,000 people have been uprooted by violence in northwest Syria since December – 100,000 more than previously recorded – as the Syrian army said it had retaken dozens of towns in Aleppo province.
A Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive in northwest Syria has displaced 900,000 people since the start of December and babies are dying of cold because aid camps are full, the UN said on Monday.
That figure is 100,000 more than the United Nations had previously recorded.
"The crisis in northwest Syria has reached a horrifying new level," said Mark Lowcock, the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.
He said the displaced were overwhelmingly women and children who are "traumatised and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full".
"Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold," Lowcock said.
The Idlib region, including parts of neighbouring Aleppo province, is home to some 3 million people, half of them already displaced from other parts of the country.
The offensive that began late last year has caused the biggest single displacement of people since the conflict began in 2011. The war has killed more than 380,000 people since it erupted almost nine years ago following the brutal repression of popular demonstrations demanding regime change.
Lowcock warned Monday that the violence in the northwest was "indiscriminate".
"Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit. Schools are suspended, many health facilities have closed. There is a serious risk of disease outbreaks. Basic infrastructure is falling apart," he said in a statement.
"We are now receiving reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries and further displacement."
He said that a massive relief operation under way from the Turkish border has been "overwhelmed", adding: "The equipment and facilities being used by aid workers are being damaged. Humanitarian workers themselves are being displaced and killed."
US President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Russia to end its support for the Syrian regime's "atrocities" in the Idlib region.
Syrian army makes gains in Aleppo province
The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found”.
The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, government forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighbouring Idlib province where anti-Assad insurgents have their last strongholds.
Government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.
Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province.
Civilians flee towards border with Turkey
The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.
It has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.
Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered”.
“Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov.
However, the Syrian armed forces said in a statement they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organisations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.
Syrian minister: Aleppo airport to re-open
Syria's transport minister, Ali Hammoud, announced on Monday the re-opening of Aleppo’s international airport with the first flight, from Damascus to Aleppo, scheduled for Wednesday and flights to Cairo to be announced within days, state news agency SANA reported.
Pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week.
The Syrian army had also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl towards the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.
Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.
The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his military would drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pull-back.
Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)