Idlib is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country — and UN says an attack on the region could result in the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century.
The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned on Monday that a large-scale military operation against the opposition and rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century.
“There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian regime troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest rebel-held zone left in the country.
Damascus has stepped up its assault on the opposition and rebels' last major stronghold with air strikes after a Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit failed to agree on a ceasefire.
Residents and rescuers have said Syrian regime army helicopters dropped barrel bombs – typically filled with high explosives and shrapnel – on Al Habeet and Abdin villages in southern Idlib and a string of other hamlets and villages in the area on Sunday.
TRT World's Sara Firth has the latest.
The regime army denies using barrel bombs. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented their use by the army.
Russian jets were believed to have hit the nearby towns of Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in northern Hama in a succession of raids, an organisation which monitors air strikes in Syria and a rebel source said.
Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, is reported to be preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest. The province is Syria's last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of the Bashar al Assad regime.
TRT World's Oubai Shahbandar has the latest from Gaziantep.
Fears of a bloodbath in Idlib
Turkey and Western powers have warned of a bloodbath if a major Russian-backed bombing campaign is launched in the heavily populated northwestern province that borders Turkey.
The UN also said it fears a full-scale offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe involving tens of thousands of civilians.
So far the aerial strikes have not hit a major city in the province where over three million civilians, many displaced from other areas, have found refuge in the course of the conflict.
Russia says it avoids civilians and only targets radical Al Qaeda-inspired groups but opposition sources and residents say most of the casualties in the last few days were civilians.
The opposition accuses Russia and its allies of striking at hospitals and civil defence centres to force rebels to surrender in a repeat of earlier, large-scale military offensives.
A US-based medical charity that operates in the provinces said three hospitals and two civil defence centres were bombed in the last two days, "leaving thousands with no access to medical care."
"It is distressing to see a rise in attacks on medical facilities ... There are over three million civilians in this crowded area of Syria who are in a life-threatening situation," Ghanem Tayara, head of Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said in a statement.
Turkey warns of mass exodus from region
Turkey will not be responsible for a migration wave in case of possible attacks on Syria's Idlib, Turkey's interior minister said on Sunday.
Suleyman Soylu was speaking to reporters in Turkey's southern province of Hatay bordering Syria.
"255,300 Syrians have returned to their homes over the past two years, 160,000 of them returned to Euphrates Shield region after Turkey brought peace there," Soylu said.
Euphrates Shield cut off the PKK/PYD/YPG terror groups' access to the Mediterranean Sea and eliminated threats posed by the terrorist group along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Slamming so-called big countries about their approach to the Syrian crisis, the interior minister said there was a major contradiction in what those countries say and do regarding the issue.
Meanwhile, Soylu also noted an average of 6,800 irregular migrants used to enter Greece from western Turkey daily in 2015 and now it had been reduced to 79.
Turkey has been one of the main routes for refugees trying to cross into Europe, especially since 2011 when the Syrian civil war began.
Russia accuses US of using phosphorus bombs
Russia's military said on Sunday that two US F-15 fighter jets dropped phosphorus bombs over Syria's Deir Ezzor province on Saturday, the TASS and RIA news agencies reported, an allegation the United States denied.
The Russian military said the air strikes targeted the village of Hajin, the last major stronghold of Daesh in Syria, and resulted in fires, but there was no information about casualties.
A Pentagon spokesman denied that US planes dropped phosphorus bombs.
"At this time, we have not received any reports of any use of white phosphorous," said Commander Sean Robertson. "None of the military units in the area are even equipped with white phosphorous munitions of any kind."
Human rights groups have said the US-led coalition against Daesh has used white phosphorous munitions over the course of the Syria conflict. The bombs can create thick white smoke screens and are used as incendiary devices. The rights groups criticise use of the munitions in populated zones because they can kill and maim by burning people to the bone.