A REDUCTION in violence should not blind the world to the continuing suffering of the people of Syria, the UN Security Council has been told.
Since 1 May, more than 160,000 people have been displaced in the country, and more than 400,000 civilians find themselves caught up in the battle for control of Raqqa Governorate, where Islamic State declared its “capital” in 2014.
The struggle to liberate Raqqa is being led by the Syrian Democratic Force, which includes the Kurdish YPG militia and is backed by the United States. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, has called for greater care to be taken to spare civilians from harm. It is reported that dozens of civilians were killed last month during air strikes.
Meanwhile, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, has highlighted the plight of civilians who remain under siege. Last week, the World Food Programme completed its 250th airdrop of food to 100,000 people besieged in Deir Ezzor.
“We must not stand silent while violence flares up elsewhere in the country, and parties continue to use starvation, fear tactics, and the denial of food, water, medical supplies, and other forms of aid as methods of war,” Mr O’Brien told the UN Security Council last month.
While the four largest cities in Syria are now under government control, Idlib remains under the control of opposition forces. Many inhabitants have arrived there after being displaced several times by the conflict.
“People go where they feel safe; so they continue to gather there,” World Vision’s response manager for northern Syria, Dr Chris Latif, said last week. “Everyone is getting herded into a smaller and smaller space. We are starting to see the consequences: people have to survive on less and less fresh water; disease is breaking out. The other thing is that it is getting harder to access these communities. There are so many actors in the mix, and all have their own ways of operating in the area.”
Idlib is one of the “de-escalation zones” agreed at talks in Kazakhstan last month led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Under evacuation deals brokered with the government, both civilians and rebel fighters are being transferred to the province from other areas. During the course of the conflict, the UN has raised concerns about “forced displacement”. The presence of armed groups, including terrorists, among those transferred poses a challenge for aid organisations, who must assure donors that funds are not being diverted.
World Vision is working with Syrian partners to deliver health services in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, but Dr Latif warned that expertise and equipment were “shrinking day by day”, and that people were taking “enormous risks to cross lines from one conflict area to another to get medical care, and end up getting arrested”. World Vision has built a new hospital to support more than 12,000 women and children every year, free of charge.
Last week, the Revd Andrew Ashdown, a priest in the diocese of Winchester, returned from a trip to Syria, his seventh. Last year, he met the President, Bashar al-Assad (News, 16 September). Travelling as a guest of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, he reported that the situation was “much calmer” than on his last visit. He spoke of re-opened schools, and streets cleared of rubble. “There is, of course, a very long way to go, but there is a sense of hope amongst the people, and relief that in many areas, the constant shelling by ‘rebel’ groups has stopped or is much reduced.” Those of different faiths could be seen “mingling together”, he said.
The UN has raised concerns about the provision of aid to Syrian refugees in the region. The $4.6-billion inter-agency appeal is just 18 per cent funded.