The Russia-backed Assad regime has been recklessly targeting civilians in northern Syria, giving Syrians two options: either die by his bombs or in the freezing cold.
The Assad regime’s winter offensive in the Idlib province has forced more than 700,000 people to flee from their homes to northern areas close to the Turkish border since December, affecting children and elderly people, many of whom froze to death.
Turkey has demanded from Russia, which is allied with Damascus, that it stop the regime offensive as soon as possible and to ensure a permanent ceasefire in the region, vowing to keep its observation posts, aiming to protect civilians there.
Shaza Barakat, a Syrian activist living in Idlib, speaking to TRT World, said the Russian-Assad regime policy toward Syrian children and other civilians is “politically criminal”. She said the province's roads are full of displaced people who are "escaping to nowhere".
Nearly 300,000 people out of the displaced are reportedly children. The number of the displaced and the proportion of children in them could be even more, according to TRT World sources in Syria's Idlib and Turkey's Gaziantep.
Abdul Selam al Sherif, who is working for Turkey’s IHH aid group based in Gaziantep close to the Syrian border, says at least 800,000 people were displaced and 60 percent of them are children.
"It is very cold now and the cold is affecting children. Some are dying because of the cold. We've recorded cases of children dying as a result of the cold, which were also shared through social media,” said a member of the Hurras Network, a humanitarian group working in Idlib.
"These children are living in fear, and are being deprived of everything, especially food. These children are also leaving their schools and losing their rights to education. So this is the situation for children in these circumstances, it's very exhausting," the anonymous member of the group said.
“The problem is they have left their houses in a freezing winter. They are moving from their houses and they do not know where they should go. You will find many people, sitting in their cars for several days,” Sherif told TRT World.
“The temperatures sometimes drop to 7 below zero or 8 below zero (in degrees Celsius) there,” he says.
Beside the problem of the freezing winter and finding shelters, the internally displaced people (IDP) also face hunger on the way, Sherif says. “They need water and they need bathrooms to use.”
The regime shelling of civilian areas has created a long queue of vehicles across the main road from Idlib to Bab al Hawa, a border crossing between Turkey and Syria, Sherif says. Because of the huge numbers, humanitarian groups are coming up short in meeting IDP needs, according to Sherif.
But the Assad regime and its Russian allies, which back Damascus in its offensive, have no care about civilian casualties and sufferings, repetitively using ceasefires to grab more territories.
It’s a ruthless political calculation to force civilians to leave their villages, towns and city centres, paving the way for the regime forces to attack opposition groups without any obstacle. That has been a “politically criminal” policy during the civil war for Damascus to reclaim territories from opposition forces across the country.
“Their track record throughout this war has demonstrated this time and time again. I don’t think they care about civilian casualties and, at times, they even find them useful for their policy of purposeful depopulation of the areas of the front lines,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Syria expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
But the current levels of displacement appear to be worse than ever, evoking sometimes apocalyptical scenes described in the holy books.
"The displacement is terrifying. It is the first time we see a wave this big since the beginning of the conflict. During displacement, the people are just leaving without securing places to stay, they don't know where they're going. Sometimes they end up living with relatives in camps or in tents that they buy,” the Hurras Network member said.
As the majority of displaced are women and children who are braving sub-zero temperatures in squalid, cold camps close to the areas near the Turkish border, according to Sonia Khush, the director of Save the Children Syria Response.
"Our partners on the ground are telling us that they've never seen anything like the speed and scale of the current displacement in Idlib before, with convoys of vehicles stretching as far as the eye can see,” Khush said.
"We call on all parties to the conflict to heed calls for an immediate ceasefire. The lives of thousands of women and children are at stake -- this is urgent and crucial."