Russia-backed Syrian regime onslaught in Idlib province has reached a "horrifying new level," says Mark Lowcock, UN head of relief affairs, adding babies are dying of cold because aid camps are full.

Syrian civilians flee from Idlib in rain toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, Thursday, February 13, 2020.
Syrian civilians flee from Idlib in rain toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, Thursday, February 13, 2020. (AP)

A Russian-backed regime offensive in northwest Syria has displaced 900,000 people since the start of December, and babies are dying of cold because aid camps are full, the UN said on Monday.

That figure is 100,000 more than the United Nations had previously recorded.

"The crisis in northwest Syria has reached a horrifying new level," said Mark Lowcock, the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.

He said the displaced were overwhelmingly women and children who are "traumatised and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full. Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold."

Biggest single displacement since 2011

The Idlib region, including parts of neighbouring Aleppo province, is home to some three million people, half of them already displaced from other parts of the country.

The offensive that began late last year has caused the biggest single displacement of people since the conflict began in 2011. 

According to the UN, the war has killed more than 400,000 people since it erupted almost nine years ago, following the brutal repression of popular demonstrations demanding regime change.

Aid from Turkey targeted 

Lowcock warned on Monday that the violence in the northwest was "indiscriminate."

"Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques, and markets have been hit. Schools are suspended, many health facilities have closed. There is a serious risk of disease outbreaks. Basic infrastructure is falling apart," he said in a statement.

"We are now receiving reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries and further displacement."

He said that a massive relief operation under way from the Turkish border "has been overwhelmed. The equipment and facilities being used by aid workers are being damaged. Humanitarian workers themselves are being displaced and killed."

US President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Russia to end its support for the Syrian regime's "atrocities" in the Idlib region, the White House said.

Health facilities struck

Rescuers and a medical aid worker said air strikes on Monday on a town northwest of Aleppo put two health facilities out of service.

The air strikes on Darat Izza, controlled by the armed opposition, directly hit one facility, lightly injuring two staff and putting it out of service, said Mazen Kewara, of the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the dialysis unit there.

Another air strike hit close to a nearby medical facility, also putting it out of service.

Footage from the rescue team Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, showed extensive damage at the first hospital.

The strikes came as Syria's regime announced that its troops had regained control of territories in northwestern Syria "in record time," vowing to continue to chase armed groups "wherever they are."

The announcement came hours after troops consolidated the regime's hold over Aleppo province, capturing over 30 villages and hamlets in the western countryside in a single day and securing the provincial capital that had for years remained within the range of opposition fire.

Turkey-Russia talks

Meanwhile, Russian and Turkish delegations discussed the tense situation in Idlib in Moscow on the first day of talks.

The talks will also continue on Tuesday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the talks, stressing the necessity to rapidly reduce tensions and prevent further worsening of the humanitarian situation. 

Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal is leading Turkey's delegation at the closed-door meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, while Russia's Presidential Envoy for Syria Sergey Vershinin is heading the counterpart group.

Both delegations include diplomats, as well as representatives of military and intelligence services.

Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Moscow hopes the meeting would contribute to de-escalating the tensions.

"All the facts are on the table. Military representatives of both the Russian Federation and Turkey, who are on the ground in Syria, in the province of Idlib, examine the changes in the situation in constant contact with each other," he said in Munich.

The two sides' militaries had a full mutual understanding, he also said, adding, "I hope they have ideas that will allow us to de-escalate this situation, basing on the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and Turkey."

Idlib deal 

In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

But more than 1,800 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces since then, flouting both the 2018 ceasefire and a new one that started on January 12. 

On Monday, Turkey's governing AK Party spokesman Omer Celik said, "Ankara has not violated the Sochi memorandum with Moscow." 

He said the Syrian regime violated the deal over "20,000 times" and Turkey's fortifications in Idlib were "protecting the Sochi deal."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies