A Syrian child looks up as relatives load belongings onto a truck ahead of leaving the town of Binnish in the northwestern province of Idlib, on February 4, 2020 | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/A.Watad
A Syrian child looks up as relatives load belongings onto a truck ahead of leaving the town of Binnish in the northwestern province of Idlib, on February 4, 2020 | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/A.Watad

Children have frozen to death in Syria's Idlib region as Bashar Assad's troops squeeze its 3 million people. The UN said the exodus could be the biggest "humanitarian horror story of the 21st century."

Families flee as frontline closes in

Syrian troops have intensified their push for the country's last major rebel enclave — a "prelude to their total defeat," according to President Bashar Assad. The violence and mass displacement could result in the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century, said the UN's humanitarian and emergency relief head, Mark Lowcock. Children in particular have become the face of this suffering.

Syrian families are seen on a truck with their belongings on their way to safer zones in Idlib Syria on February 11 2020  Photo Picture-allianceAAMSaid

Largest exodus since World War II

Of the almost 900,000 forced from their homes and shelters in the last three months, 80% have been women and children, a UN spokesperson said. Around 300,000 of those have fled since the start of February alone. The wave of displacement is the largest exodus of civilians since World War II.

An view on a refugee camp during a freezing cold day in Idlib Syria on February 13 2020  Photo Picture-allianceAAHHarrat

Deadly temperatures

With temperatures reaching minus seven Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit) at the snow covered displacement camps in the hills near Turkey's borders, seven children have died from exposure and bad living conditions. Save the Children said families are burning whatever they can find to stay warm. The chairty warned the death toll could rise.

Armored personnel carrier vehicles carrying commandos pass through the Hatay province of Turkey to support Turkish border units on February 13 2020  Photo Picture-allianceAAC Genco

Belligerents bolster forces

Convoys of Turkish commandos rolled toward the former "de-escalation zone" as Russian-backed Syrian forces intensified their push to retake the area in late January. After 13 Turkish soldiers stationed there to support rebels were killed in early February, diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire stalled.

A family is seen on their way to safer zones with their belongings from Daret Izze Etarib regions in Idlib Syria on February 11 2020  Photo Picture-allianceAAMSaid

Highway to nowhere

Assad's offensive to retake the strategic M5 highway leading through Idlib province to Syria's second city, Aleppo; has been a long-term objective. After a Russian bombing campaign helped Syrian forces capture all towns along the route on February 11, fierce fighting in western Aleppo forced more than 43,000 toward the Turkish border.

Smoke rises from an airstrike in Idlib  Photo Picture-allianceAAIDervis

Russian bombing 'indiscriminate'

The sheer number of Russian and Syrian aerial and artillery attacks on displacement camps, hospitals and schools "suggest they cannot all be accidental," UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville said. His office has recorded 299 civilian deaths this year, 93% caused by the Syrian government and its allies. Michelle Bachelet, the UN's human rights chief, called the campaign "indiscriminate."

Syrians inspect the wreckage of a military helicopter belonging to government forces after it was shot down over Aleppo province on February 14 2020  Photo Getty ImagesAFP

Rebels, jihadis strike back

Turkish-supported rebels have been caught out by the onslaught, as have jihadis who are not officially backed by Ankara. One Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, scored a rare victory last week when they downed a particular model of helicopter that Syrian forces are thought to use to drop barrel bombs on civilians.

A man sits with his children in front of an oven at a makeshift camp in Idlib Syria  Photo Picture-alliancedpa

Search for safety

The UN's Bachelet said "no shelter is now safe" and displacement camps have been overwhelmed by the number of those fleeing from the violence. Many have left the camps to take their chances on the road. Bachelet called for humanitarian corridors to be established to allow civilians to escape.

Syrian families are seen at a camp in Turmanin near the Turkish border on a cold winter day in Idlib Syria on February 14 2020  Photo Picture-allianceAAMSaid

No way out

Turkey has closed its borders to prevent a further influx of Syrians. It already hosts 3.5 million refugees. That leaves the people of Idlib with no escape route. More than 500,000 of those fleeing are children.

Author: Tom Allinson

First published: February 18, 2020

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