AN END to the war in Syria is in sight, the United Nation’s special adviser, Jan Egeland, has said.
But, with Idlib now the only rebel-held province, its population having swelled to 2.6 million people with people from cities bombarded by the Government, the conflict must end “not in a bloodbath, but by agreements”, he urged last week.
“This area is screaming for diplomatic solutions,” he said. “It is yearning for the best diplomats, the best military negotiators to sit down between each other and come to agreements, knowing that there wouldn’t be another Idlib to be evacuated to.”
He has previously expressed fear that the Syria government will “say the place is filled with ‘terrorists’”, and has warned: “You cannot have a war in the midst of the largest cluster of refugee camps and displaced people in the world.”
Last week, the Syrian army dropped leaflets over Idlib urging people to accept state rule. They read, Reuters reported: “Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will release you from the rule of militants and terrorists. . . We call upon you to join local reconciliation (agreements) as many others in Syria have done.”
On Monday, the British Foreign minister, Alistair Burt, reported on Twitter: “Grim news of escalating military action by Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib, ripping up yet another de-escalation agreement”.
Reconciliation agreements are causing the UN concern. After terrorists killed more than 200 people in As-Sweida, a Druze area, last month, a UN spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, warned that “the transfer of armed fighters with a history of gross human-rights abuses and contempt towards international law can mean an increase in the likelihood of violent attacks against civilians.” There had been reports of “scores of ISIL militants” raiding homes, shooting and killing civilians inside their homes, abducting women and children, and threatening to burn the women alive.
Territory recaptured by the Government includes Daraa, in the south-west, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising.
“Hopefully, we are seeing the beginning of the end to the big war,” Mr Egeland said. There were “signs” that the UN and humanitarian partners would finally gain access to civilians that they had been trying to reach “for a very long time, and that some of the cruel practices of the war are coming to an end”.
A World Vision spokesman, Marc-Andre Hensel, agreed that there had been “a shift of the war”, but emphasised that the situation varied across regions. “War is more than just an act of violence,” he said on Wednesday, and the humanitarian needs were “huge”. He warned that the situation in Idlib and the north-west was “more complex” than the south-west and resolution could be “bloody” or “diplomatic”.
An “under-served” area, Idlib was home to families “under lots of pressure” with “massive needs”, from shelter and medical care to safe places for schooling.
On Friday, Mr Birt announced that British aid would fund four health centres and two mobile health clinics in Idlib, psychological support, “dignity kits” for women, support staff to help people access services, including legal advice, and cash-transfers. DFID is also backing a new technology that provides civilians with early warnings of airstrikes, through air raid sirens and social media alerts. A press release said that it had already warned more than two million people and was estimated to have reduced casualties by up to 27 per cent in areas under heavy bombardment.
“A humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib is avoidable,” Mr Birt said. “The UK supports the urgent diplomatic efforts being made by Turkey and the UN. We call on the Syrian regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, to uphold the ceasefire they have agreed, and to respect international humanitarian law. They should also be clear: we will respond appropriately if the Asad regime repeats its appalling use of chemical weapons.”
More than five million Syrians are now hosted in neighbouring countries. Mr Hensel said that he was conscious of tensions, including in Lebanon, where one in three people is a refugee and the government is pressing for repatriation.
In 2017, the UN reports, 77,000 Syrian refugees and 850,000 IDPs went home, but another 2.9 million were newly displaced inside the country.
“Returns have to be done voluntarily and it has to be safe and done in an informed way,” Mr Hensel said. “If people choose to go back . . . it needs to be done in line with humanitarian principles.”
Against a backdrop of under-funded international appeals, World Vision is among a number of NGOs looking at how it can support Syrians in rebuilding their lives after the war. “We don’t make our choice based on who controls the area,” Mr Hensel said. “For us, it’s that we have humanitarian access to people in need.”
In recent weeks, the Syrian government has issued hundreds of death notices for people who disappeared after being detained in its detention centres during the conflict. Human Rights Watch reports that most specify no cause of death, just a date, often years ago. Most of those who listed a cause said “heart attack”, with no further explanation.
The director of the organisation’s counter-terrorism programme, Nadim Houry, said that the Syrian government “should not be allowed to get away with mass disappearances and murder again. . . There also needs to be accountability for the enforced disappearances and deaths in detention.”