In Depth

A million trapped Syrians face pitiless government onslaught

The UN has warned that ‘the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century’ could be about to happen

Even after an eviscerating nine-year conflict that has left almost 400,000 people dead, according to lower estimates, and fuelled the refugee crisis that has destabilised Europe, what is unfolding now could be the greatest tragedy yet of the Syrian civil war, the UN has warned.

Since the war’s outset, military momentum has built up steadily for the government forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and as he drove his opponents from their strongholds around the country, Idlib province on the Turkish border became their last redoubt in Syria’s northwest.

The fighting and the vengeful tactics, including what The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls the Syrian “regime and Russia’s systematic policy of forcing more people to abandon their areas,” has led to 1.1 million people being displaced in the region since December last year.

Half the national population of 22 million has been displaced, roughly 6m of them abroad, since the outset of violence.

The internal refugees face appalling conditions. Not only are they the subject of shelling and air strikes from Syrian and Russian forces - attacks that have hit hospitals, refugee camps, schools, residential areas, mosques, and markets - but they must suffer a brutal winter that claimed the lives of twelve civilians last week alone. Most of them were children.

Erdogan warned on Wednesday that it could be “a matter of time” before Turkey launched a military operation to push back the Syrian government offensive.

That time seemed to arrive yesterday, as violence flared after “Turkish forces and Syrian rebels fought government troops… and Russian warplanes struck back in an sharp escalation of an already intense battle over the last rebel bastions,” Reuters reports.

Refugees are blocked from retreating to safety across the border, as Turkey, alarmed by the number of displaced people, has closed the border. Their options: set up makeshift, under-resourced camps at risk of attack, or keep on moving.

“When you ask people on the road where they are going, nobody knows. They just know that there are no safe places anymore, so it is better to keep moving,” a refugee told Al Jazeera.

“Aid workers, mostly operating from across the border in Turkey, say they are overwhelmed and warn of a dire shortage of tents,” reports The Washington Post. “Potable water is in short supply and sanitation facilities are mostly nonexistent as fleeing civilians set up ramshackle camps in the depths of the Syrian winter.”

“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,” said UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen on Wednesday.

Pedersen warned, “The potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the UN warned of the “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century.”

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Their fate is further complicated by the presence of around 15,000 Turkish armed forces in the area, whose purpose is not fully defined, and the bellicose rhetoric of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Syrian rebels will surely be glad for Turkish military aid, but the civilians are trapped between a conflict prolonged by Turkish “protection” or a terrifying fate at the hands of a vindictive Damascus regime which has been committing war crimes against them since the beginning of the war, when they dared to demand democracy in 2011’s Arab Spring.

As far as Assad and his Russian backers see it, when it comes to achieving victory, the ends justifies the means. Once the rebels are gone, they say, stability will be achieved.

“On the whole, the situation in Syria has stabilised considerably. Peaceful life is returning to the country. Its economy and social life is being restored,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said.

Earlier this week, regime forces captured the vital Damascus-Aleppo M5 motorway, which is key to freedom of movement in, and thus control of, Syria, leading some to think the civil war could be approaching a violent crescendo.

Assad revelled in his latest military achievement. “We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” he said during a speech on Monday in Aleppo. “This is a prelude to [the rebels’] final defeat, sooner or later.”

The international community is reluctant to throw their weight behind a Syrian opposition that is now dominated by the al Qaeda-affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. A political solution has been made harder as Turkish and Russian talks are derailed by ever-increasing violence between them.

“If there is an international community out there, this is the time to show its face," a refugee told Al Jazeera. "The regime and the Russians believe they can take the whole of Syria back because the world will stand aside and just look. The world's indifference is the regime's strongest weapon.”

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