A Russian-backed 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 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 “traumatized 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.”
The Idlib region, including parts of neighboring Aleppo province, is home to some three 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 underway from the Turkish border is has been “overwhelmed. 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, the White House said.
At least 20 civilians were killed on Sunday as Syrian regime forces were poised to retake a key motorway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo, after weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region, a monitor said.
The regime and its Russian ally have been engaged in a fierce weeks-long offensive to take back the vital M5 artery which connects Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, to Damascus and the Jordanian border.
A section of the highway southwest of Aleppo city still lies under control of rebels and jihadists who dominate a shrinking, densely populated territory centred on neighbouring Idlib province.
Pro-regime forces have been chipping away at the area in an assault that has sent half a million people fleeing north towards the Turkish border.
Deadly raids on Sunday by regime ally Russia left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, near the last stretch of the M5 still in rebel hands, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian air raids with crude barrel bombs also killed four civilians in the Atareb district east of Aleppo, while another died in artillery fire near the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, it said.
The last civilian was killed in regime airstrikes on Ketian village in southern Idlib.
Recapturing the M5 would allow traffic to resume between war-torn Syria’s main business hubs, helping the regime revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.
After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria’s northwest, only a two-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside government control, according to the Observatory.
Pro-government forces were closing on Sunday on the last segment southwest of Aleppo, neighbouring Idlib, the Britain-based war monitor said.
“Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.
Fighting was ongoing in the area early Sunday evening with bombing intensifying, he said.
Half a million displaced
Since December, Russian-backed government forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing towards relative safety nearer the Turkish border.
Some three million people are now trapped in the Idlib region, around half of whom have already fled other parts of the country.
The Syrian army said in a statement Sunday it had recaptured 600 square kilometres (232 square miles) in recent days, comprising “dozens of villages and locations” in south Idlib and west Aleppo provinces.
The Syrian government on Sunday approved a plan aimed at “progressively re-establishing services in liberated areas”, official news agency SANA reported.
That came a day after the army captured the Idlib town of Saraqeb, located on a junction of the M5, state media said.
Troops then pressed north along the motorway past Idlib’s provincial borders and linked up with a unit of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory and state agency SANA.
It was the first time in weeks the two units joined up after waging separate offensives against rebels and jihadists in Idlib and Aleppo.
A little more than half of Idlib province remains in rebel hands, along with slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
Some 50,000 fighters are in the shrinking pocket, many of them jihadists but the majority allied rebels, according to the Observatory.
The United Nations and aid groups have appealed for an end to hostilities in the Idlib region, warning that the exodus risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the nearly nine-year war.
An airstrike in eastern Syria killed eight fighters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force overnight, a war monitor said on Friday.
“Unidentified aircraft targeted vehicles and arms depots in the Albu Kamal area, causing a large explosion. At least eight Iraqi Hashed fighters were killed,” the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
He said several others were wounded.
Through a spokesman contacted by AFP, the US-led military coalition operating in Syria and Iraq denied carrying out the strike.
Abdel Rahman said three villages in the Albu Kamal area known for housing forces loyal to Tehran have been targeted by drone strikes since Wednesday, causing no casualties.
Syria’s war began as a peaceful uprising that was swiftly crushed in a regime crackdown. Almost nine years on, more than 380,000 people have died, and millions more have fled.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key ally of Damascus — on Tuesday made a surprise visit to the country, here is a summary of the main events in the conflict:
Revolt to repression
In March 2011, protests break out to demand political change after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad dynasty.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracks down on demonstrations but rallies continue.
In July an army colonel who has defected from the military sets up the Turkey-based opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
An armed rebellion erupts, with support from western and Arab countries. The rebels seize key territory, including large swathes of third city Homs and a chunk of the ancient city of Aleppo.
In 2012 regime forces step up their crackdown, carrying out bloody operations, notably in the central city of Hama, a bastion of opposition to the Assad regime.
In July FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.
From 2013 regime helicopters and planes unleash air strikes, some of them using barrel bombs, on rebel zones.
The same year Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah confirms it has deployed fighters to back Syrian government forces.
Iran also boosts its support for Assad.
On August 21, 2013, chemical attacks blamed on the regime on two rebel-held areas near Damascus reportedly kill more than 1,400 people. The regime denies the charge.
Then US president Barack Obama pulls back from threatened punitive strikes on Syrian regime infrastructure, instead of agreeing a deal with Moscow that is meant to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Islamic State group
In June 2014, the jihadist Islamic State group proclaims a “caliphate” over territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.
In September a US-led coalition launches airstrikes against IS in Syria.
The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, who since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.
Kurds join with Arabs to form the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
They oust IS from key areas including the jihadists’ de facto capital Raqa in 2017, and then in 2019 their last Syrian holdout, the village of Baghuz.
In October IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed during a US special services operation in northwestern Syria.
Russia steps in
In September 2015 Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad’s troops, in a campaign that will prove to be a turning point in the war.
In a string of deadly campaigns, the regime retakes key rebel bastions, from Aleppo in 2016 to Eastern Ghouta in 2018.
In April 2017 a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people.
US President Donald Trump unleashes missile strikes against the regime’s Shayrat airbase.
In April 2018, the US, with the support of France and Britain, launches retaliatory strikes after an alleged regime chemical attack on the then rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus.
Turkish offensive against Kurds
On October 9, 2019, Ankara launches an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in Syria, whom it brands “terrorists” linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
It follows Washington’s decision to withdraw US forces from the Turkey-Syria border area.
Turkey and its Syrian proxies have since taken a 120-kilometre by 30-kilometre stretch of the border.
Battle for Idlib
Since mid-December, the Syrian regime and its ally Russia have ramped up their bombardments of Idlib province in the northwest, involving ground battles with jihadists and rebels.
Damascus vows to reconquer the region, run by the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Seven children and four women were among 14 civilians, killed when a roadside bomb blew up their bus in northwestern Burkina Faso, the government said.
“The provisional toll is 14 dead,” a statement said, adding that 19 more people were hurt, three of them seriously in Saturday’s blast.
The explosion happened in Sourou province near the Mali border as students returned to school after the Christmas holidays, a security source said.
“The vehicle hit a homemade bomb on the Toeni-Tougan road,” the source told AFP.
“The government strongly condemns this cowardly and barbaric act,” the statement said.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but jihadist violence in Burkina Faso has been blamed on combatants linked to both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups.
Meanwhile, the army reported an assault against gendarmes at Inata in the north on Friday, saying “a dozen terrorists were neutralised”.
The deaths came the week after 35 people, most of them women, died in an attack on the northern city of Arbinda and seven Burkinabe troops were killed in a raid on their army base nearby.
Burkina Faso, bordering Mali and Niger, has seen frequent jihadist attacks which have left hundreds of people dead since the start of 2015 when Islamist extremist violence began to spread across the Sahel region.
In a televised address on Tuesday President Roch Marc Christian Kabore insisted that “victory” against “terrorism” was assured.
The entire Sahel region is fighting a jihadist insurgency with help from Western countries but has not managed to stem the bloodshed.
Five Sahel states — Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad — have joined forces to combat terrorism in the fragile region that lies between the Sahara and the Atlantic.
Increasingly deadly Islamist attacks in Burkina have killed more than 750 people since 2015, according to an AFP count, and forced 560,000 people from their homes, UN figures show.
US air strikes against a pro-Iran group in Iraq killed at least 25 fighters, a paramilitary umbrella said Monday, triggering anger in a country caught up in mounting tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Sunday night’s attacks saw US planes hit several bases belonging to the Hezbollah brigades, one of the most radical factions of Hashed al-Shaabi, a Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitary coalition.
The strikes “killed 25 and wounded 51, including commanders and fighters, and the toll could yet rise,” said the Hashed, which holds major sway in Iraq.
Victims were still being pulled from the rubble of bases near Al-Qaim, an Iraqi district bordering Syria, on Monday, it said.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the US had “shown its firm support for terrorism and its neglect for the independence and sovereignty of countries” by carrying out the attacks.
Washington, itself a key ally of Baghdad, must accept the consequences of its “illegal act”, he added.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper described the attacks — which hit three locations in Iraq and two in neighbouring Syria — as “successful”, and did not rule out further military action against Iran-backed militias.
The strikes were in retaliation for a series of rocket attacks since late October against US interests in Iraq, including a barrage of more than 30 fired on Friday at an Iraqi base in Kirkuk, where a US civilian contractor was killed.
The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is highly revered by Iraq’s Shiite majority, denounced the attacks.
“The authorities must prevent Iraq being used as a place for the settling of accounts,” it said in reference to growing tensions between the United States and Iran.
These tensions have soared since Washington pulled out of a multilateral nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and imposed crippling sanctions.
Iraqi leaders fear their country could become a battleground between Tehran and Washington, in a context where they are also grappling with huge street protests against corruption and Iran’s political influence.
Pro-Iran factions angry
The protest movement forced prime minister Abel Abdel Mahdi to resign last month and it has rejected Iran’s favoured successor — a position shared by President Barham Saleh.
On Monday demonstrators in the Shiite-dominated southern cities of Basra and Najaf torched US flags and chanted anti-American slogans, with similar scenes reported in Kirkuk north of Baghdad.
US sources say pro-Iran armed factions now pose a greater threat than the Islamic State group, whose rise saw the US freshly deploy troops on Iraqi soil.
But significant elements of the Iraqi political class view the 5,200 US troops in the country as a “threat”, with Sunday night’s strikes reviving calls for them to leave the country.
Abdel Mahdi’s military spokesman decried “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty”, while the Hezbollah brigades are demanding the “withdrawal of the American enemy”.
Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah — which is separate from the targeted faction — called the attacks a “flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and security” and noted that Hashed had been a key player in the battle against IS.
Another powerful pro-Iran group, Assaib Ahl al-Haq — whose leaders were recently hit with US sanctions — also called for Americans to withdraw from Iraq.
“The American military presence has become a burden for the Iraqi state and a source of threat against our forces. It is therefore imperative for all of us to do everything to expel them by all legitimate means,” it said.
Parliament’s deputy speaker, part of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s bloc, called on the Iraqi state to “take all necessary measures” in the face of the US attacks.
The Badr organisation, another key pro-Iran group, took a similar line.
Several lawmakers have castigated afresh an agreement permitting American soldiers to deploy in the country, arguing the strikes amount to a violation that renders the pact obsolete.
Since October 28, at least 11 attacks have targeted Iraqi military bases where US soldiers or diplomats are deployed.
A missile struck a passing out ceremony in southern Yemen on Sunday, killing at least five southern separatists, security officials said.
The ceremony in the town of Ad-Dali was for new recruits to the separatist-dominated Security Belt Forces, a formation trained and equipped by the United Arab Emirates to patrol territory retaken from northern rebels or Al-Qaeda, its spokesmen Majed al-Shuaibi said.
Five soldiers were killed and nine others wounded when the missile hit the reviewing stand during the march-past.
Shuaibi told AFP the missile was fired by the Huthi Shiite rebels who control the capital Sanaa and much of the north.
But there was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Iran-allied rebels, whose forces are present in the mountains just 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Ad-Dali.
In August, 36 Security Belt soldiers were killed in a drone and missile attack by the Huthis on a passing out ceremony just outside the main southern city of Aden.
The security forces in the south have also come under repeated attack by both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
There has also been a war within a war between rival unionists and separatist elements of the loyalist security forces.
The Security Belt Forces seized Aden in deadly fighting with unionists in August and a fragile truce reached in Saudi Arabia last month has so far failed to produce a promised power-sharing government.
Turkey will not withdraw from its observation posts in the Syrian rebel bastion province of Idlib which has seen an increase in violence carried out by regime forces supported by Russian airstrikes, the defence minister said.
The posts were established under a September 2018 deal between Syrian regime ally Moscow and Ankara, which backs the rebels, to avert an all-out Syrian government onslaught in Idlib.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces surrounded one of 12 Turkish observation posts in Idlib province on Monday after overrunning nearby areas in a push to take the last opposition holdout, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We respect the agreement reached with Russia and we expect Russia to abide by this agreement,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said in comments published on Sunday on the defence ministry’s Twitter account.
“We will by no means empty those 12 observation posts, we will not leave there,” Akar said.
His comments came during a visit, together with top army commanders, to the southern province of Hatay on the Syrian border to inspect Turkish troops on Saturday.
Turkey, worried over a new wave of refugees from the Idlib region, is pressing for a fresh ceasefire deal, as it sent a delegation to Moscow on Monday.
“We are doing what’s needed to put an end to this massacre,” Akar was quoted as saying by the official news agency Anadolu.
He said Ankara expected Damascus ally Russia to “use its influence on the regime in order to stop ground and air assault” in Idlib.
The latest violence has displaced more than 235,000 people and killed scores of civilians, despite an August ceasefire deal and international calls for a de-escalation.
The Idlib region hosts some three million people including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.
“As long as this pressure remains in place, it will trigger a new migrant wave and put further burden on Turkey which is already hosting nearly four million Syrian brothers,” said Akar.
Around 300 protesters — mostly Syrians living in Turkey — held an anti-Moscow demonstration near the Russian consulate in Istanbul on Saturday against the intensified attacks in Idlib, shouting “murderer Putin, get out of Syria!”, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Akar’s visit to soldiers on the border region comes as Turkey is also readying to send troops to support the UN-recognised government in Tripoli against strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
“The Turkish Armed Forces are ready for whatever task is given in order to protect our country and people’s interests,” Akar said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said Ankara would respond to an invitation from the Libyan national unity government and that the Turkish parliament would vote on a motion to send troops as soon as it returns from recess as early as next month.
Ankara signed in November a security and military cooperation deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) but in order to send troops, parliament needs to vote through a motion as it does for Iraq and Syria.
Anadolu news agency, citing sources in Erdogan’s ruling party, reported that the timetable could be brought forward and the motion could be presented to the parliamentary speaker’s office on Monday.
The General Assembly could vote the measure in an extraordinary session on Thursday, it said. Parliament is due to return from recess on January 7.
More than 235,000 people have fled the Idlib region over the past two weeks, the UN said Friday, amid heightened regime and Russian attacks on Syria’s last major opposition bastion.
The mass displacement between 12 and 25 December has left the violence-plagued Maaret al-Numan region in southern Idlib “almost empty,” according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.
AFP correspondents in the area have seen people fleeing in droves in recent days.
The main highway connecting southern Idlib to the province’s north has been bustling with pick-up trucks ferrying civilians out of the flashpoint region.
Since mid-December, Russian-backed regime forces have pressed with an assault on jihadists in southern Idlib, despite an August ceasefire deal and calls for a de-escalation from Turkey, France and the United Nations.
The increased air strikes came as Damascus loyalists advance on the ground.
They have since December 19 seized dozens of towns and villages from jihadists amid clashes that have killed hundreds on both sides.
The advances have brought them less than four kilometres (two miles) away from Maaret al-Numan, one of Idlib’s largest urban centres.
According to OCHA, ongoing battles have amplified displacement from the area and the nearby town of Saraqeb.
“People from Saraqab and its eastern countryside are now fleeing in anticipation of fighting directly affecting their communities next,” it said.
Idlib is dominated by the country’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, whose chief this week urged jihadists and allied rebels to head to the frontlines and battle “the Russian occupiers” and the regime.
The region hosts some three million people, including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.
The Damascus regime, which now controls 70 percent of Syria, has repeatedly vowed to take back the area.
Backed by Moscow, Damascus launched a blistering offensive against Idlib in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people.
Despite a ceasefire announced in August, the bombardment has continued, prompting Turkey this week to press for a fresh ceasefire deal during talks in Moscow.
France on Tuesday called for an “an immediate de-escalation,” warning of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began with anti-government demonstrations brutally crushed by security forces.