ANKARA              -            President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing towards Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border. With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving towards our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterisation assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing towards Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or towards other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

Turkish lawmakers are set to back a bill on Thursday that allows troop deployment in Tripoli, but that is likely to begin with military support, training and drones in the air rather than boots on the ground.

President Erdogan, whose ruling party’s alliance has a majority but faces opposition to the plan in parliament, said last week Turkey would deploy troops in Libya to support Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The GNA has requested Turkish support as it fights off an offensive by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the country’s east that is backed by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan.

Analysts and officials say Ankara is unlikely to immediately send troops, but rather military advisers and equipment. A senior Turkish official said last week Turkey may train Libyan soldiers in Turkey, and Reuters reported that Ankara is also considering sending allied Syrian fighters to Tripoli as part of the planned military support.

On Wednesday, Vice President Fuat Oktay said the bill served a symbolic role that Ankara hoped would be a “deterrent” to the parties, and that Turkey may not send troops if Haftar’s forces halted their offensive and pulled back.

“The deployment will likely start with military advisers, increased (drones), and special operations that would work with the Libyan military,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is chairman of the think-tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “The hope would be that the Turkish military may not itself be involved in military action,” he said.

Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and its nationalist allies are expected to back the legislation on Thursday despite opposition from the other major parties that say military support would cause Libya’s conflict to spread across the region and endanger Turkey’s safety.

Ankara signed a military cooperation accord with Tripoli in November and has said it would help prevent Libya sliding into “chaos.” It is also meant to protect Turkish private investment in Libya and bolster Turkey’s offshore energy claims in the Mediterranean.

But it could also put Turkey at odds with the other foreign players in Libya’s war and in the region. The Arab League is the latest to warn against the deployment of foreign fighters in the North African country. “Ankara sees its involvement in Libya as a symbol of its new status as a regional power,” said Asli Aydintasbas, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The idea is, to be at the big table, you need to be present on the ground.”