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What you need to know about the recent escalation of war and humanitarian crisis in Syria

Syrian rebels and Turkish forces fought government troops in northwest Syria on Thursday as Russian warplanes struck back in a sharp escalation of an intense battle over the last rebel bastions of Syria. 

The recent escalation in fighting has left one million civilians — mostly women and children — to desperately flee the relentless bombing and fighting. With nowhere to go, families are sleeping outside or in thin tents in sub-zero weather. 

Humanitarian groups say more than 300 people, including children and babies as young as seven months old, have died just since the beginning of the year. 

How we got here 

The government of President Bashar al-Assad is trying to recapture the opposition-held province of Idlib.

Syrian troops backed by Russian forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a nine-year war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians and left much of the country in ruins.

Rebel and jihadist groups that hold the area have been trying to overthrow Assad since 2011. 

Idlib is strategically important to the government. It borders Turkey to the north and provides access via highways from the city of Aleppo to the capital Damascus and the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Turkey and Russia have closely co-ordinated their moves in recent years in Idlib province. Turkey maintains observation posts in northern Syria that were set up to monitor a 2018 ceasefire agreement with Russia. The truce collapsed in late 2019, leading to the current Syrian offensive, backed by Russia.

Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire deal, saying Ankara had not held up its end to rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.

Turkey rejects the Russian assertion, saying Ankara was making progress against radical groups in Idlib when the Syrian government launched its current offensive.

Recent developments

The latest Syrian government offensive began Dec. 1.

Syrian troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces are fighting the rebels in their strongholds in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nearly decade-old civil war.

Syria claims it is going after terrorists and was forced into action. But the UN said airstrikes have hit a number of hospitals and displaced persons camps. 

Nearly one million civilians have fled from airstrikes and artillery barrages toward the frontier, overwhelming relief agencies and alarming Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders.

Ankara sent in thousands of additional troops and armoured vehicles in recent weeks, vowing to halt the government’s advance.

“We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter [Idlib] suddenly one night.”

International response

The UN refugee chief, Filippo Grandi, called for a halt to the fighting to allow hundreds of thousands of trapped and destitute civilians to move to places of safety.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for an immediate ceasefire.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on the UN Security Council and European Union to take action.

“Today, and for several weeks now, one of the worst humanitarian dramas has been unfolding,” Macron told reporters as he arrived at an EU summit in Brussels.

Hundreds of thousands of fleeing civilians are seeking shelter by huddling in thin tents in sub-zero weather. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Notable quotes 

“Many [civilians] are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow. They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

– Mark Lowcock, UN humanitarian chief

“Children and families are caught between the violence, the biting cold, the lack of food and the desperate living conditions. Such abject disregard for the safety and well-being of children and families is beyond the pale and must not go on.”

Henrietta Ford, executive director of the UN’s children agency

“The sheer quantity of attacks on hospitals, medical facilities and schools would suggest they cannot all be accidental.” 

 Rupert Colville, UN human rights spokesperson

(CBC News)

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UN Security Council hears of ‘unfolding humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria’s Idlib province

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkey’s border “under horrendous conditions” in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, the UN humanitarian chief said Wednesday.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has “overwhelmed” efforts to provide aid.

He said nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1, when the government offensive began — more than 500,000 of them children.

“Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

Lowock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces.

“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,” he said.

‘Tragic suffering’

UN special envoy Geir Pedersen echoed Secretary-General António Guterres’s expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation “and the tragic suffering of civilians.”

“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,” he said.

This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows an area near Kafaldin in northern Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border on Feb. 5, top, and the same area with a large number of refugee tents for internally displaced people on Feb. 16, bottom. The difference illustrates the rapid expansion of refugees as hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area scramble to escape an offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. (Maxar Technologies via The Associated Press)

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.”

He said Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a ceasefire in Idlib, “can and must play a key role in finding a way to de-escalate the situation now,” though meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow in recent days and contacts between the two presidents have not produced results.

“To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,” Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva.

‘Spare no effort’

The United States, United Kingdom, Germany and others stressed that three-way talks with Syria supporters Russia and Iran and opposition backer Turkey, which led to a de-escalation zone in Idlib, aren’t working.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula isn’t working, it’s now time for the UN to step in and “it’s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.”

“We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council, to stop what is happening,” he said. “We must spare no effort.”

Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.

“If you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,” he said.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: “We will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria, which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.”

He defended the Astana process as playing “the key role,” saying that “there’s no other mechanism for a political dialogue.”

Nebenzia supported Pedersen’s efforts to get agreement from Syria’s government and opposition on an agenda so a constitutional committee can start discussing a new charter for the country, which is seen by many as a first step toward elections and formation of a new government.

“What needs to stop is protection of fighters, insurgents,” he said.

Britain’s ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russia and Syria need to stop “indiscriminate and inhumane attacks” in the northwest that are killing and injuring innocent civilians.

During closed consultations after the open meeting, French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said he proposed that the Security Council issue a statement on the escalating situation, but Russia blocked it.

According to council diplomats, the proposed statement called for a cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, but Russia insisted on an additional line that would have allowed the fight against “terrorists” to continue. That was unacceptable to the vast majority of council members, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.

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German foreign minister warns of humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib province

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib if fighting in Syria doesn’t stop, speaking Saturday after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavusoglu during the Munich Security Conference.

Maas urged Russia to place pressure, “on the Assad regime so that these attacks and fighting are stopped.” The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has killed hundreds of civilians, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Many of those who have fled have been forced to sleep outside during the bitterly cold winter, with the weather contributing to at least 10 deaths.

“I hope that the upcoming talks between Russia and Turkey next week will result in progress in these areas so that we are spared another humanitarian catastrophe there,” Maas said. 

Turkey said on Saturday it had fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib region in line with de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, warning it would take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern region. But their fragile co-operation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

Members of a family fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Hazano in the northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province on Feb.5, on their way northward toward the Turkish border amid an ongoing regime offensive. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib. The Kremlin also said Ankara had failed to neutralize militants there.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian advances in Idlib, and that Ankara had conveyed its position to Moscow during ongoing talks.

“We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor,” Oktay said. “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib. Some of our observation posts have fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime,” he said, referring to Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said later on Saturday that Turkey wants to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy, but will take other steps if necessary.

Syrians fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Batabo in Aleppo province on Feb.5. They were making their way toward the Turkish border. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

He added that a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday to hold talks over Idlib and that he would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later in the day.

Iran, which also supports Assad, said last week it was ready to help Ankara and Damascus resolve their disputes.

Turkey-Russia talks

The escalation of violence in Idlib has also caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery fires by the Russian-supported government forces.

Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx from Idlib. It has poured more than 5,000 troops, several convoys of military vehicles and equipment to the region, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

As the Syrian government continued its offensive, Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara to tackle the dispute. Erdogan has also spoken on the phone twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Turkish troops were killed.

However, there was no sign of an agreement, with both sides accusing the other of failing to meet their responsibilities.

Turkey, a NATO ally with the alliance’s second-biggest army, has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdogan said earlier this week that the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.

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Syrian camp at 20 times its capacity, humanitarian crisis underway

A humanitarian emergency is unfolding in the camp in northeast Syria overwhelmed with people who fled the last battlefields of ISIS extremists — and a top priority is helping hundreds of unaccompanied children return home, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Tuesday.

Peter Maurer, who visited the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province on March 21, told a small group of reporters that it was established in the 1990s to accommodate about 5,000 Iraqi refugees and is now overcrowded with between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

“Given the numbers, the Kurdish authorities and International Committee of the Red Cross are just overwhelmed in terms of registering and finding out who is coming,” he said.

Maurer, the ICRC president, explained that Kurdish local authorities who control the area separate out fleeing Islamic State fighters and boys between the ages of 12 and 18, whom they believe were most likely fighters, and put them in detention.

The camp was initially built to house about 5,000 people. There are now as many as 100,000 there. (Issam Abdallah/Reuters)

Women and children are sent to al-Hol, which is roughly two-thirds kids and one-third mothers, he said.

The estimates are that about 35,000 people in al-Hol are Syrians, around 35,000-40,000 are Iraqis, and the rest, probably around 10,000, are from between 30 and 40 other nations worldwide, Maurer said.

“Our top priority at the present moment is to identify the unaccompanied children, to notify the governments that we have found children without parents, and to see whether somewhere from China to Argentina there is family of unaccompanied children to which we can send the kids back,” he said.

Asked how many unaccompanied children were in al-Hol and several smaller camps, Maurer replied: “Certainly hundreds, maybe more.”

The ICRC calls the situation at al-Hol a ‘humanitarian emergency.’ (Issam Abdallah/Reuters)

To complicate things further, he said that during the last few days “we have seen in those camps there are not only families of foreign fighters but we see also victims of Islamic State aggressions in the past.”

Maurer said during his visit, “we found Yazidi women who have been abducted by Islamic State into Baghouz, who have been enslaved in Baghouz, who managed to get out” of Baghouz, the last ISIS stronghold.

“Because they can’t prove who they are they are basically put in detention-like facility in camps,” he said.

At its height, the ISIS ruled a third of both Syria and Iraq, holding millions hostage to its harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law.

The group carried out massacres and documented them with slickly produced videos circulated online. It beheaded foreign journalists and aid workers, and captured thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority and forced them into sexual slavery. Many remain missing to this day.

The ICRC says the first priority is to try to help the unaccompanied children return to their homes. (Issam Abdallah/Reuters)

Maurer said the ICRC’s first priority is the return of unaccompanied children “and second we try to see whether women with their children who wish to return can be returned.”

He said some countries will accept them, and will even accept fighters who are put into either detention or reintegration and deradicalization programs. But some countries object to taking their people back, he said, citing Britain, Europe overall, and others.

“We are just looking at a pretty stark picture of a highly complex situation in which we see that nobody is particularly interested to put structures, processes in place, to deal with the issue beyond emergency assistance,” Maurer said.

He said “the big issue” is to find a system to deal with the different categories of people and identify who’s a victim, who’s been involved in criminal activity, who remains highly radicalized — and then determine what to do with them.

“Even for me, it was quite an experience to talk to those women who are extremely radical in their approach and think Islamic State will be back, and it’s just a temporary displacement,” Maurer said. “They think nothing bad has happened.”

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U.S. imposes new sanctions on Venezuela to squeeze out leader amid humanitarian crisis

The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela on Friday, targeting six of the country's government officials tied to President Nicolas Maduro in its latest move to squeeze the embattled leader.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Treasury cited the battle over humanitarian assistance and blamed the six current or former security officials, who it said controlled groups that blocked aid from reaching people in the Latin American country.

"We are sanctioning members of Maduro's security forces in response to the reprehensible violence, tragic deaths and unconscionable torching of food and medicine destined for sick and starving Venezuelans," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, after deadly violence blocked humanitarian aid from reaching Venezuela over the weekend.

The U.S. “will continue to target Maduro loyalists prolonging the suffering of the victims of this man-made humanitarian crisis,” Mnuchin added.

Separately, the U.S. envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said the U.S. had revoked visas of "dozens more"  Venezuelans but declined to elaborate, saying U.S. laws prevented him from discussing details about visas.

Russia, China block bid for UN action

"We continue to look at close associates of Maduro who, with their families, have visas to the United States," Abrams said at a news conference.

Friday's action is the second set of sanctions this week, after the U.S. on Monday targeted four Venezuelan state governors allied with Maduro. Washington on Monday also called on allies to freeze the assets of state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

Watch: Venezuela has been hit with new sanctions, but will they actually work?The U.S. targeted Venezuela's government with new sanctions after deadly violence blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the country over the weekend. Vice-President Mike Pence led talks on trying to get Nicolas Maduro out of power, and hit other Venezuelan politicians who support Maduro with sanctions too. But there are questions about whether sanctions will actually work. 2:14

U.S. sanctions block any assets the individuals control in the U.S. and bars U.S. entities from doing any business or financial transactions with them.

The Trump administration and dozens of other countries have recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Guaido, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has invoked constitutional provisions to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent.

Guaido has since been recognized by most Western nations as the rightful leader of Venezuela.

Maduro still controls the military, state institutions and Petroleos de Venezuela, which provides 90 per cent of the country's export revenue.

Russia has accused the U.S. of preparing to intervene militarily in Venezuela and this week, along with China, blocked a U.S. bid to get the UN Security Council to take action on Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro still controls the military, state institutions and Petroleos de Venezuela, which provides 90 per cent of the country's export revenue. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Abrams said he was in talks with Russia on Venezuela. Both Moscow and Beijing were unlikely to provide additional financial support to Maduro's government although they continued to give him diplomatic and political cover, he said.

"We have made the argument, unsuccessfully to date, to both Russia and China that they are not helping themselves,"  Abrams said.

"If they are concerned … about the recovery of money they have lent or invested, a bankrupt Venezuelan economy will never be able to repay those amounts, only a Venezuela in recovery will be able to do so." 

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Syria humanitarian pause takes effect in Ghouta

A five-hour truce called by Russia started on Tuesday in the Syrian rebel-held eastern Ghouta near Damascus with the stated aim of allowing people to escape the area which is being targeted in a fierce offensive by the Moscow-backed government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the daily truce from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to let civilians leave the area, where government bombardment has killed hundreds since Feb. 18.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm had generally prevailed in the eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets had hit the town of Douma in the morning.

The Russian defence ministry said on Monday the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, were intended to help civilians leave and to evacuate the sick and wounded.

But the spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in the eastern Ghouta, accused Russia of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or being killed in bombardment and siege, and called this a “Russian crime.”

Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who has driven insurgents from numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

A UN Security Council resolution passed on Saturday had demanded a 30-day truce across Syria.

Fighting has escalated on several fronts in Syria this year. As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria. Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

The Syrian war, which is approaching its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people from their homes.

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Congo humanitarian crisis 'something like you'd see in a horror movie'

The head of the UN’s World Food Program is making an urgent appeal for aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, where millions are struggling with food shortages brought on by conflict.

David Beasley began a four-day mission to the country on Friday and said more than three million people face severe hunger in the south-central Greater Kasai region.

He said several hundred thousand children could die within the next few months.

“It is heartbreaking to see 3.2. million people severely food insecure, who don’t know where they will get their next meal,” Beasley told CBC News.

“And we’re talking about several hundred thousand children there that will die in the next few months if we don’t get: first funds, and then second food, and then third, access in the right locations.”

On Saturday, Beasley met with conflict-displaced families in the region, where violence erupted in August 2016 after clashes between security forces and the Kamwina Nsapu armed group.

Beasley said the violence is “something like you’d see in a horror movie.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this. We literally have 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds killing others and chopping their heads off,” he said.

“We’re asking for the government and all parties involved to bring peace so that we can save innocent children and try to bring some stability to the region.”

A regional tribal leader who had defied the government of President Joseph Kabila died during the clashes.

Officials say the number of people displaced by conflict has nearly doubled in the past six months to 1.5 million. 

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Puerto Rico governor calls for aid to avoid humanitarian crisis

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has asked for more federal government aid to avert a humanitarian crisis on the island, which is home to 3.4 million people. 

Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, devastated the Caribbean island. Five days after the Category 4 storm struck, many on the island were still without adequate food, water and fuel. 


(Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

Damaged dam

People living near the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest were moved to safety after cracks appeared in the 88-year-old structure. There were growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below.


(Alvin Baez/Reuters)

Infrastructure destroyed

A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, following the passage of Hurricane Maria.


(Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Absolutely obliterated’

President Donald Trump said during an appearance in New York last week that Puerto Rico was “absolutely obliterated” and in “very tough shape.” The confirmed toll from Maria jumped to at least 49 on Monday, including 16 dead in Puerto Rico, several of whom drowned or were hit by flying debris.


(Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Road to recovery

People cleaned the mud from their flooded house after the area was hit by Maria in Toa Baja. 


(Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Communication limited

This man manages to speak by cellphone to his family in the United States from Vega Alta, 45 kilometres north of San Juan. Maria destroyed the U.S. territory’s electricity and telecommunications infrastructure.


(Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Aid urgently needed

Federal aid is racing to stem a growing humanitarian crisis in towns left without fresh water, fuel, electricity or phone service by the hurricane. Democratic lawmakers with large Puerto Rican constituencies on the mainland characterized the response so far as too little and too slow. 


(Carlos Giusti/Associated Press)

Seeking shelter

Hilda Colon wakes up after sleeping in a shelter set up at the Pedrin Zorrilla coliseum after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in San Juan.


(Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

After the floods

Marciel stands in her flooded house after the rains in Toa Baja. Puerto Rico battled dangerous floods after Maria ravaged the island.


(Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Puerto Rico prays

Orisnela Solano hugs her daughter, Laura Goenaga as they attend a church service at the Parroquia Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion church in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.


(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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