Russian warplanes struck at rebel-held towns in northwest Syria again on Thursday and Turkish artillery supported insurgent attacks elsewhere as officials from the two countries struggled to reach a compromise to halt an escalation in the Syrian war.
In Geneva, the United Nations refugee chief called for a halt to the fighting to allow hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians to move to places of safety.
Syrian troops backed by Russian forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the nine-year-old civil war.
But Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to launch a military operation against the government forces unless they pulled back, and Turkish troops and weaponry have already massed inside Syria.
Talks between Ankara, which supports some rebel factions, and Moscow to avert a wider war and a possible direct confrontation have struggled to make progress.
Turkish officials sounded more optimistic on Thursday and one said the latest round had not been “completely without a result”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said there had been some rapprochement with Russia in the talks but they were still not at the desired levels. Ankara and Moscow have accused each other of flouting a 2018 de-escalation agreement that allowed Turkey and Russia to set up observation posts in Idlib.
Residents and relief staff said Russian warplanes on Thursday resumed attacks on the towns of Darat Izza and Atareb in the northern corner of Aleppo province, where Turkish troops have set up a line of defence to thwart further advances by the Syrian army and allied Iranian militias.
In Idlib province, Turkish artillery provided cover fire for renewed rebel attacks on Nairab and the strategic crossroads town of Saraqeb, according to rebels and residents.
The Turkish official told Reuters the artillery bombardments did not signal Erdogan had launched a full-scale operation.
Nowhere to go
Meanwhile, there was no end in sight for the misery of the nearly one million people – most of them women and children – who have fled the fighting to seek sanctuary in the border area.
The exodus has overwhelmed relief agencies but Turkey, which is struggling to cope with the 3.7 million Syrian refugees already camped inside its borders, says it can take no more.
Families are sleeping outside by roads and in olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold. Some have already been displaced more than once after fleeing battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the conflict.
The U.N. humanitarian affairs agency (OCHA) said the crisis had reached a horrifying level, with more and more displaced people crammed into a small pocket of Idlib.