Conditions for people in northwest Syria are “at the most critical points”, a regional spokesperson said, adding the massive scale of human displacement over such a short period of time has increased needs exponentially.
More than 140,000 Syrians have been displaced in the last three days alone by violence in the country's northwest, bringing the total of those uprooted in a Syrian regime offensive against the last opposition stronghold to over 800,000, the UN said on Thursday.
The UN said at least 60 percent of the more than 800,000 displaced since December 1 are children. The humanitarian crisis in the already overcrowded opposition-held enclave is compounded by freezing weather conditions and existing severe needs.
The regime offensive, backed by Russia, has intensified and expanded to include southern and eastern Idlib province, as well as southern and western Aleppo, an area home to an estimated 4 million people. Most have already been displaced from other parts of Syria because of the ongoing conflict.
The humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria is “at the most critical points”, the UN said, adding that the massive scale of human displacement over such a short period of time has increased needs exponentially.
David Swanson, the UN regional spokesperson for the crisis in Syria, said more resources, including funding, are immediately needed to save lives and alleviate suffering, predicting the 800,000 figure will rise in the coming days as the regime offensive continues.
“This level of displacement couldn’t come at a worse time as more and more people are squeezed into an increasingly smaller area of land with little more than the clothes on their back,” he said, describing people fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid detection in temperatures below zero.
“The crisis is deepening by the minute, but the international community remains indifferent," Swanson added.
The regime, with Russian support, has focused their offensive on areas along a strategic highway that runs through opposition territory and connects the country's south to the north. The M5 highway, now held by the regime, had been out of regime control since 2012 and accessing it was part of a now-failed 2018 ceasefire agreement. Calls for a ceasefire have failed to stop the violence.
On Thursday, the regime continued to advance through the Aleppo countryside to secure their hold on the highway.
Most of the villages and towns that sit alongside the highway are now empty, while hundreds of thousands are squeezing into displacement camps, open fields and tents to move away from the front lines.
The UN said 550,000 of the displaced are living in Idlib towns and villages already packed with displaced people. Another 250,000 have moved to northern Aleppo in areas administered by Turkey and allied Syrian groups.
Turkey, a sponsor of the ceasefire and a backer of the opposition, has sent thousands of troops into the area to stall the advances, sparking rare direct confrontations with the Syrian regime.
The Syrian war, now in its ninth year, has pulled in international players, including the US, Russia and Turkey. Russia has supported the Syrian regime troops, while the US has led an international coalition fighting Daesh militants.
Also on Thursday, the US military acknowledged its troops fired on and killed a Syrian combatant when regime supporters attacked an American convoy in northeast Syria a day earlier.
The clash Wednesday was a rare direct confrontation between a Syrian pro-regime group and US troops deployed in the increasingly crowded terrain near the border with Iraq and Turkey.
A convoy of US armoured vehicles drove into a regime-controlled area and was attacked by pro-regime supporters, including armed men who fired at the soldiers and pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Spokesman for the US-led coalition Myles Caggins said the person killed was a combatant. He said the US soldiers had come under fire and responded in self-defence. The regime media maintained the person killed was a civilian.
The US maintains lines of communication with Russia, regime's ally, to avoid such confrontations. It wasn't clear if the route was deconflicted.
Videos showed regime supporters attacking the vehicles and two men firing small arms at the convoy, which was flying the US flag. Some residents pelted the convoy with stones, while another dumped a bucket full of dirt on the back of one vehicle.
US soldiers were seen standing in the middle of the melee, trying to disperse the crowd. One US vehicle was stuck in the dirt, apparently having veered into a ditch, while another had a flat tyre.
“Despite US troops' repeated de-escalation efforts, local militia members attacked US troops with small arms weapons from multiple firing positions,” Caggins said. “Coalition forces always have the right to self-defence and fired back at armed aggressors, killing one adult male combatant.”