The exchange is muscular, even if it is far from being the first. To Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on Wednesday morning threatened to launch a military offensive against Syrian forces in the northwestern region of Idlib on Wednesday (February 19), Moscow said that such an operation would be “The worst option”, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan had reiterated a few hours earlier his ultimatum to the Syrian regime to withdraw by the end of February east of a key highway and the vicinity of Turkish observation posts at Idlib. “We could arise one night without warning (…), an operation in Idlib is imminent”, warned the Turkish head of state on Wednesday. Last week, he said he was already ready to strike at the forces of the Damascus regime ” anywhere “ if Turkey’s positions in the Idleb region are attacked again.
Turkey fears new influx of internally displaced persons
The Damascus offensive sparked an open crisis with Ankara, which supports certain rebel groups, when several Turkish soldiers deployed to Idlib were killed by Syrian bombing in early February. So far, rebellion-proponent Ankara and protector of the Damascus regime Moscow have managed to get along in Syria, despite their support for opposing camps. In 2018, in Sochi, in the summer residence of the Russian president on the shores of the Black Sea, MM. Putin and Erdogan had found common language on Idlib.
Despite Ankara’s repeated warnings, government forces are continuing their offensive and are currently concentrating their operations in western Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH) said. Supporters of the regime try to progress “Towards the mountain Cheikh Barakat”, which overlooks large areas in western Aleppo and northern Idlib, near the Turkish border, according to the OSDH. Ankara sees the advancement of the regime in Idlib with more disapproval as it fears a new influx of displaced people on its soil. Some 3.7 million Syrians have already taken refuge there since 2011.
900,000 people displaced since December
The humanitarian situation has reached a critical point in this region, the last rebel and jihadist stronghold in Syria, where nearly a million people have fled a regime offensive supported by the Russian air force. After several weeks of offensive, the humanitarian situation is dire. According to the UN, about 900,000 people, the vast majority of whom are women and children, have fled since the beginning of December the assault carried out by the Assad regime and Moscow in the Idlib region and its surroundings. The country, at war since 2011, has never experienced such an exodus over such a short period of time. In total, the Syrian conflict has forced millions of civilians into exile and killed more than 380,000 people.
At a press conference in Istanbul on Wednesday, a coalition of Syrian NGOs urged “The world to wake up and stop the carnage” in Idlib, drawing up an alarmist inventory of the humanitarian situation in this province. According to the Coalition of Syrian NGOs (SNA), “The already built refugee camps are overcrowded (…) and civilians have no choice but to sleep in the open air”, despite the winter temperatures.
Only half of the health structures still operational
These NGOs estimate that emergency aid of 310 million euros is necessary to meet the basic needs of these displaced persons who have found refuge near the Turkish border, crowding tens of thousands into makeshift camps . According to the OSDH, more than 400 civilians, including 112 children, have died since the regime, supported by the Russian air force, launched a new offensive in the northwest in mid-December.
Many NGOs accuse the Syrian regime and Russia of targeting civilian populations and infrastructure. Of the region’s 550 health facilities, only half are still operational, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the last two operational hospitals in the west of Aleppo province, near Idlib, including a maternity hospital, were hit by strikes.