ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Turkey and Russia renewed their war of words Wednesday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened an "imminent" operation in Syria to end the regime's brutal assault on the last rebel enclave.
It came as Syrian aid workers issued an urgent call for a ceasefire and international help for nearly 1 million people fleeing the regime onslaught in the country's northwestern Idlib province — the biggest wave of displaced civilians in the nine-year war.
The Syrian NGO Alliance said displaced people are "escaping in search of safety only to die from extreme weather conditions and lack of available resources."
"We are facing one of the worst protection crises and are dealing with a mass movement of IDPs (internally displaced persons) who have nowhere to go," it told a news conference in Istanbul.
The group said $336 million was needed for basic food, water and shelter. Education resources are also needed, for 280 million displaced school-age children.
Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in Idlib, has been pushing for a renewed ceasefire in talks with Russia, to prevent another flood of refugees into its territory adding to the 3.7 million Syrian refugees it already hosts.
But Erdogan said talks with Moscow over the past fortnight have failed to achieve "the desired result," and warned that Turkey would launch an offensive into Syria unless Damascus pulls back its forces by the end of the month.
"An operation in Idlib is imminent. ... We are counting down; we are making our final warnings," Erdogan said in a televised speech.
He called for Syrian forces to retreat behind Turkey's military posts in Idlib, which were set up under a 2018 deal with Russia designed to hold off a regime advance.
The Kremlin quickly responded to Erdogan's threat, warning that any operation against Syrian forces would be "the worst scenario."
The United Nations this week said the displaced are mainly women and children and that babies are dying of cold because aid camps are full.
The Syrian NGOs called for the warring parties to allow safe access for humanitarian groups and for a "complete ceasefire and end to human rights violations."
The regime offensive has killed more than 400 civilians since it began in December, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The violence in northwest Syria is indiscriminate. Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit," the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Mark Lowcock, said this week.
Moscow has repeatedly vetoed Security Council resolutions.
The head of the World Health Organization said Tuesday that of nearly 550 such facilities in northwest Syria, only about half were operational.
"We repeat: Health facilities and health workers are not a legitimate target," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.
Syrian troops have reconquered swaths of Idlib and retaken the key M5 highway connecting the country's four largest cities, as well as the entire surroundings of Aleppo city for the first time since 2012.
According to the Observatory, government forces made new gains in western Aleppo province Tuesday and were pushing toward the Sheikh Barakat mountain. That would give them a vantage point over swaths of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including sprawling camps housing tens of thousands of displaced people.
© Agence France-Presse
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