(Photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

  • The Turkish armed forces are losing a battle with Russian-backed Syrian troops over a safe haven full of refugees in Northern Syria.
  • If Syria takes Idlib permanently, about 1 million refugees will be forced out in the direction of Turkey.
  • Turkey has already taken in 4 million Syrian refugees, and says it cannot handle more.
  • The Turkish military is threatening to elevate its low-grade war in Syria, or to release the refugees northward into the rest of Europe.
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Bombing by the Russian air force has tipped the scales against the Turkish military in their confrontation over the Idlib Province of northern Syria.

Until recently, Idlib provided some safety for millions of Syrians seeking refuge from the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia.

Assad has repeatedly massacred civilians in his struggle to control all of Syria, including the rebel-held territories near Syria's border with southern Turkey.

But in the last few days, Turkish troops - who had been providing some stability in Idlib - were quickly surrounded or overrun by bombing and shelling from the Syrian army and their Russian "advisors."

With pro-Syrian troops moving into the Idlib area, more than 832,000 refugees have migrated north toward Turkey. The fighting threatens to send one million or more refugees -mostly women and children - into Turkey, which has already taken in nearly four million civilians since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

Traffic jams where babies die

The refugees have been seen in huge numbers every day for weeks in enormous traffic jams, trapped between the Russian-backed Syrian military behind them and the Turkish border in front.

Virtually homeless and stranded in freezing temperatures, the refugees are reliant on food aid from charities. If babies go to sleep at night, while their parents are camped in the open, they risk dying of hypothermia, according to CNN.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Tuesday that the situation was potentially the worst refugee crisis of the 21st century. As many as three million people in total are caught in the ever-shrinking rebel zone near the Turkish border. It has been under near continual bombardment from Syrian and Russian forces for years.

Two weeks ago, Syria retook the rebel-held highway crossroads at Saraqib, near Idlib, that links the capital Damascus with its largest city, Aleppo. That victory gave Syrian forces a patch of high ground in the hills with good visibility over the Idlib area - perfect for shelling anyone they want. As a result, Russian air attacks and Syrian ground troops, supported by Iran, sent at least one million civilians fleeing towards the closed Turkish border.

Turkey, which currently hosts at least three million Syria refugees, has demanded a halt to the offensive.

Turkey is losing its battle to keep the refugees safe - and out of Turkey

Yet Russian-backed Syrian troops swarmed past a dozen Turkish military observation posts along Idlib's border with the rest of Syria.

Turkey needs Idlib province to remain a safe and stable area for refugees to stay - so that they don't attempt to migrate into Turkey. The Turks have poured in hundreds of military vehicles and regular ground troops, and engaged in repeated artillery exchanges with the Syrians, killing dozens of soldiers on both sides, to defend Idlib from the Syrian incursion.

But Assad's offensive has continued.

Turkey has repeatedly warned Europe that a collapse of the Idlib "pocket" - and the ensuing flow of refugees that is certain to follow - would force a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis. In 2015, at least 1.5 million refugees poured into central and northern Europe, mostly via Greece, after arriving from Turkey by boat.

4 million refugees later, Turkey can't handle it any more

The current crisis is potentially worse than that, because the refugees previously taken in by Turkey arrived over a period of time. And once inside the Turkish border, they did not attract the attention of the Syrian military.

After nearly a decade of up to four million Syrians, Turkey's ability to continue housing such numbers is limited and a further influx would likely involve another mass migration, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has warned.

On Tuesday at a conference for his political party's membership, Erdogan warned that a Turkish offensive to relieve pressure on the pocket - heating up what amounts to an undeclared war against Syria - was "only a matter of time."

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