'Catastrophe' looms as displaced Syrians flee toward closed Turkish border
Government troops seeking to regain control of last opposition enclave in country
"The children. Thousands of children under the trees."
That's the answer that came crackling back from Dr. Tammam Lodami on the phone from the northern Syrian town of al-Dana when asked for a description of conditions on the ground.
North of Idlib city and west of Aleppo, the town is caught between a two-pronged advance by Syrian government troops and their Russian backers as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeks to regain control of the last opposition enclave in the country.
"This is the case," Lodami said as he struggled to convey the scale of the crisis he's witnessing, the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the conflict and headed toward a closed Turkish border with no shelter and temperatures dipping as low as –7 C.
"My English is humble," he said. "I want to reach my voice to the world."
But very little seems capable of permeating the indifference of the world and that elusive body known as the diplomatic community these days, not even when warnings sound of another possible escalation in a war about to enter its 10th year.
"You can consider these days as a catastrophe," said Lodami, a dentist by trade who now works for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).
"Families leave their towns and homes for fear of indiscriminate bombardment. [The Syrian regime forces] target hospitals, medical centres, ambulances, schools, markets and civilians. Everything."
Syria has spent the war systematically corralling rebel opposition fighters, extremist groups, political activists and hundreds of thousands of displaced people into Idlib province.
Now, the Assad regime seems to be coming for its opponents, among them al-Qaeda-linked miliants, with Russian airstrikes paving a brutal path for troops on the ground.
Regime forces began their advance in April 2019, but it has been picking up steam. Some 800,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northwestern Syria since early December, according to the UN's office for humanitarian affairs.
On Tuesday, spokesperson Jens Laerke described it as the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the start of the Syrian crisis almost nine years ago.
It's "the fastest-growing displacement we've ever seen in the country," he said at a news conference in Geneva.
It's not difficult to understand why when faced with the daily images of the damned coming out of Idlib: relatives weeping over the charred bodies of loved ones killed in airstrikes, White Helmet rescue workers plucking bloodied and crying children out of the rubble.
Roads leading toward the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families lucky enough to have them or to clamber on carrying what they can.
Many are headed toward Atmeh, a sprawling camp of about one million people along Syria's still-closed border with Turkey.
Dr. Okbaa Jaddou, a pediatrician there, said their hospital has only 40 beds.
"On [these] beds, we put 80 [children] or maybe 120 [children], because [there are] so many people now," he said in a Skype interview on Wednesday. "We are operating in emergency conditions."
Originally from Hama, a city further south, Jaddou has been living at Atma for two years.
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"I was displaced, and I [haven't] found any place more safe than the Syrian-Turkish border because the [Syrian] regime has bombed everywhere."
"If the situation [continues], we are going to see a very big crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border."
Idlib was supposed to be a "de-escalation zone," agreed to in a ceasefire deal worked out between Turkey, which supports some rebel groups inside Idlib, and Russia.
An estimated 1,800 civilians, according to new reports, have been killed since then.
The recent deaths of a number of Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian shelling has raised tensions considerably. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troop reinforcements to the border.
"If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today," he said to thundering applause in the Turkish parliament, "regardless of the lines of the [ceasefire]."
The prospect of Syrian and Turkish troops trading fire in a direct confrontation has sounded alarm bells.
"What we must absolutely prevent is this developing into wider conflict between the Turks, the Syrians and the Russians," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a director of the group Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to NGOs working in Syria.
An ex-soldier and chemical weapons expert, he would like to see NATO countries, including Canada, do more to support Turkey in the current crisis.
But Turkey has also angered Western allies in recent months by moving against Syrian Kurds in the northeast credited with helping allied troops fighting the Islamic State or ISIS.
De Bretton-Gordan said the view in the United Kingdom at least is that it shouldn't get involved until it's all over and then help to pick up the pieces.
"You know, I've had meetings with British government ministers asking for this, but there is a view certainly here in London that the whole of Idlib that's not under Turkish or Russian control is being run by the Jihadis. That's just not the case."
Doctors on the ground at the Bab al Hawa hospital near the Turkish border estimate that 95 per cent of the victims of the latest offensive are civilian, with two-thirds women and children.
"Three million civilians trapped," said de Bretton-Gordon. "If there's no medical support to help them, their morale completely goes. And as we know at the moment, most of them are rushing towards the Turkish border."
The presence of a stronger Turkish military presence along that border offers comfort to those sheltering nearby, according to Jaddou, but few believe Turkey is strong enough to face Syria given the Russian and Iranian allies supporting Damascus.
"Ten minutes ago, I heard four bombings from Turkish cannons," he said.
"But these four bombings cannot change the situation because Russia supports the Assad regime with their war planes.
"Idlib, the last opposition castle, is going to surrender. Because people with only rifles cannot fight war planes."
In al-Dana, Lodami doesn't want to talk about the Turkish-Syrian confrontation. It's a political question and he is concerned with helping the needy, he said.
"How we will [face] our God with the children?" he asks. "All the world. All the world there is a very big problem. They don't give any care or interest in these children and women under the trees."
Ask him what their immediate needs are and the answer comes without a pause.
"We need peace. Just peace."