Turkey warns attack on Syria's Idlib would cause humanitarian disaster

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Intense air raids reported on edge of Syria's rebel-held Idlib

The first signs of the predicted mass movement of Syrian civilians seeking to escape an imminent joint Russian-Syrian air assault emerged on Monday when the United Nations said 30,000 of the 3.5 million people in the opposition-run enclave of Idlib had already been internally displaced.

Mark Lowcock, the UN's secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said that a major assault on opposition-held areas in northwest Syria could force 800,000 civilians to flee to the Turkish border and risked provoking the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. Around half of them are already displaced from other parts of Syria.

Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov, meanwhile, said Moscow had "irrefutable information" that Syrian rebels were planning a "provocation" in Idlib province to justify western intervention.

It is also alarmed by efforts by US -backed Kurdish YPG forces - regarded by Ankara as an affiliate of PKK separatists it has been battling for decades - to recapture northern areas held by Turkish forces.

On Monday, a senior Turkish member of parliament said that the government in Ankara had no plans to open the border wall to allow Syrian refugees to cross into Turkey.

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"We are taking all the preventing measures to solve the refugee problem within Syria".

Erdogan warned that the Assad regime was preparing to launch "a massive offensive against Idlib" where some 3 million people live and is one of the few safe havens for internally displaced Syrians. The Red Crescent official said the camp had been expanded to host another 60,000 people.

He estimated that around 5,000 families had previously fled the area, with some heading north to the camps that have popped up along the border with Turkey, and others taking shelter in the fields outside villages and towns.

It was the heaviest bombardment since August 10, when at least 53 civilians were killed in Idlib and the neighbouring province of Aleppo, he said.

More than 3 million people live in the area, almost half of them already displaced from fighting elsewhere in Syria.

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The Trump administration has warned for days about an expected assault on Idlib, the last major stronghold for rebels fighting in Syria, while urging Syrian leader Bashar Assad and his allies not to use chemical weapons.

Turkish forces and Turkish-backed opposition fighters now control an area between Afrin and Jarabulus where Ankara had hoped to resettle the millions of refugees. The Syrian dictator's use of chemical weapons in 2017 and again last April killed scores of civilians.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin has to decide if he is willing to ignore Erdoğan, and allow the Assad regime to attack as many as 60,000 Syrian opposition fighters, of which around 10,000 are not allied to Turkey, but instead follow the United Nations proscribed jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda's former branch in Syria.

Erdogan acknowledged that groups like HTS "remain active in this area" but insisted that such fighters "account for a fraction of Idlib's population". Turkey says it is still possible HTS can be persuaded to dissolve, but this is unlikely.

While Turkish and global NGOs and aid workers provide humanitarian aid to about 30,000 people in the camp, sending in more aid has proved impossible.

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Opposition forces in Idlib say they will fight to the end for control of the province, while Mr Assad has repeatedly vowed to regain control of all Syrian territory.

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