- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) - A children’s advocacy group warned Friday that half of nearly 400,000 displaced people in the Syrian government’s two-month-long offensive on the country’s last rebel-held region are children, calling it a wave of displacement unlike anything seen before in the war in Syria.

The offensive by Syrian government forces, backed by ally Russia, has focused mainly on Idlib province in the northwest, and also lately on neighboring Aleppo. It is an attempt to seize control of a strategic highway that links the capital, Damascus, and the north. The push has accelerated in the last two weeks and government forces Wednesday seized control of the key town of Maaret al-Nouman, which sits along the highway.

The United Nations has estimated that 390,000 Syrians have been displaced over the past two months - 315,000 in December and 75,000 in January.

According to advocacy group Save the Children, half of those displaced are children, adding that at least 37,000 children were forced to flee in the month of January.

During a one-week period in mid- January, 34 children and 13 women were killed, the U.N. said.

Trucks and other vehicles have crammed the roads as civilians - some of them already displaced by earlier fighting - packed up their meager belongings to leave towns and villages under attack.

Save the Children said its advocacy partners working in Idlib and Aleppo described miles of convoys and said “the sheer scale of displacement is unlike anything they have seen before.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces launched the offensive despite a cease-fire deal struck between Russia and Turkey, which support opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition, has said Russia, a staunch Assad ally, has not abided by previous agreements to end violence.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Friday that Ankara could use military force to bring stability to Idlib after the offensive sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the Turkish border.

“We will not stand by in Idlib or other parts of Syria,” Erdogan told a meeting of provincial ruling party leaders in Ankara. “We sincerely want stability for Syria and we won’t hesitate to do whatever it takes, including using military force.”

Turkey, which hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has troops stationed at 12 observation posts in Idlib to monitor the earlier cease-fire.

Asked about Erdogan’s statement accusing Russia of failing to observe its obligations on Idlib, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday the Kremlin disagrees with that.

Peskov told reporters Idlib has remained “the rallying point for a large number of terrorists who have waged offensives against the Syrian government forces and the Russian military base” on the coast of Syria. ” That causes our deep concern.”

Opposition media and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey has set up two new observation points around Saraqeb, a town believed to be the next target for the government offensive after the capture of Maaret al-Nouman. There was no immediate comment from Turkey and the existing observation points have not stopped previous government advances.

The violence and displacement has been compounded by harsh winter conditions. Idlib province, largely in rebel hands, is home to some 3 million people, most of them displaced from other parts of Syria in earlier bouts of violence.

Idlib and parts of rural Aleppo are the last areas controlled by rebels in Syria. With assistance from allies Russia and Iran, Assad has managed to regain territories earlier lost to the opposition and now controls nearly 73% of Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group.

Joelle Bassoul, spokesperson for Save the Children, said the displacement is “more desperate for sure because that northern border is the edge. Beyond it there is nowhere to go.

“Most people are packing and knowing there is no going back to towns and villages that are being bombed out,” she said.


Wilks reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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