Sharp escalation in clashes in Syria

Smoke rises during government forces bombing on the village of Sarmin, near Idlib, Syria. EPA-EFE/YAHYA NEMAH

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Turkish forces and Syrian rebels fought government troops in northwest Syria on Thursday and Russian warplanes struck back in a sharp escalation of an intense battle over the last rebel bastions, Russian and Turkish officials said.

The Turkish Defence Ministry said two of its soldiers were killed and five were wounded in Syrian government air strikes in Idlib, bringing Turkish military fatalities to 15 this month in the Idlib region. It said more than 50 Syrian soldiers had been killed in retaliation.

Earlier, talks between Moscow and Ankara, who back different sides in Syria’s nine-year war, had failed to reach a compromise to ease the situation and head off a direct confrontation between them in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Syrian troops backed by Russian forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians and left much of the country in ruins.

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee chief called for a halt to the fighting to allow hundreds of thousands of trapped and destitute civilians to move to places of safety.

There was no end was in sight to the misery of the nearly 1 million people – most of them women and children – who have fled the fighting to seek sanctuary in the border area.

Families are sleeping outside by roads and in olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold. Some families have at least reached tent camps for displaced people.

“We want the whole world to see us and learn about our conditions, the children and these camps,” said Ruqyyah Omar, a woman who left Idlib and is now at a camp near Azaz, about 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo city.

Thursday’s action came a day after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened a military operation against the Syrian government forces unless they pulled back from rebel-held areas.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Turkey provided artillery support to the militants, wounding four Syrian soldiers.

Russian warplanes then attacked the militants who had burst through the government positions in two areas of Idlib, allowing the Syrian army to repel them, the ministry said.

“So as not to allow the armed groups to make it deep into Syrian territory, Russian Su-25 aircraft carried out a strike … on the armed militant groups that burst through,” it said.

Ankara said Syrian planes had carried out the air strikes.

Two U.S. lawmakers voiced concern Thursday over the carnage in Syria’s Idlib province and urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take diplomatic action against the Syrian regime and Russia.

In a bipartisan letter to Pompeo, Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas and Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York urged the top diplomat to impose economic sanctions on those responsible for the Idlib offensive.

The province has been the scene of an ongoing offensive by forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime backed by Russia which has displaced nearly 900,000 civilians since December.

McCaul and Engel also called for continued diplomatic action to hold Assad and Russia accountable.

“We urge you to enhance diplomatic action to ensure that Russia and Assad cannot further undermine the international response to the humanitarian crisis that they created,” said the lawmakers.

UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock said Wednesday that the conflict in northwest Syria is forcing people to flee “under horrendous conditions.”

Many others are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, Lowcock said during a briefing to the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in the region.

“They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

He said nearly 50,000 people are sheltering under trees or in other open spaces.

“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold. Imagine the grief of a parent who escaped a warzone with their child, only to watch that child freeze to death.”

Via Reuters / Anadolu 

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