SYRIA is on the brink of the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century, unless international powers put aside their own interests, the UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Sir Mark Lowcock, said this week.
In recent weeks, 900,000 people — mainly women and children — have fled violence in the Idlib region, one of the last areas not controlled by the Syrian government. Many are sleeping in tents near the Turkish border, in freezing temperatures. World Vision this week passed on a report from a field worker that a child had died in the cold.
Last week, Sir Mark reported that “tens of thousands are crammed into schools, mosques, and unfinished buildings. Many are in tents in the mud, exposed to wind, rain, and freezing weather.” On Monday, he said that mothers were burning plastic to keep their children warm, and babies and small children were dying because of the cold.
“The violence in north-west Syria is indiscriminate,” he said. “Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques, and markets have been hit. . . Basic infrastructure is falling apart. We are now receiving reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries, and further displacement. . .
“A huge relief operation, across the border from Turkey, is under way, but it is overwhelmed. The equipment and facilities being used by aid workers are being damaged. Humanitarian workers themselves are being displaced and killed.
“The biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first. The only option is a ceasefire.”
Sir Mark has spoken about Idlib for some time, warning last year that it was “on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare” (News, 5 July 2019). Christian Aid predicted almost two years ago that the region could become a “perfect kill-box” (News, 13 April 2018).
Half of Idlib’s three-million population have already been displaced from other parts of the country. A 2018 deal between Turkey and Russia, establishing a demilitarised zone, has faltered, and, since a government offensive began last April, more than 1500 civilian deaths have been recorded. The UN reported this week that 93 per cent of the deaths since January had been “caused by the Syrian government”, mainly after air strikes.
On Tuesday, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said: “The sheer quantity of attacks on these hospitals, medical facilities, schools would suggest they can’t all be accidental. At a minimum, even if they were accidental, it shows lack of proportionality, necessity, precaution and so on, all of which can contribute to something being attributed as a war crime.”
The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said on Thursday that the fighting was “advancing into areas with the highest concentrations of people, including the displaced, and threatening to strangle humanitarian lifelines. As the space for safety sinks further, the potential for human suffering grows worse.”
The UN deputy regional humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria, Mark Cutts, told Sky News that if the shelling and airstrikes moved any closer to these areas, “we’re going to see a bloodbath. We're going to see a massacre on a scale that has never been seen in this entire war.”
While the majority of the Idlib region’s population is civilian, there are also groups designated as terrorists by the Security Council, who have been carrying out attacks and counter-attacks. A report by Refugees International notes that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — a former al-Qaeda affiliate — is accused of serious human-rights violations against civilians in north-west Syria, including arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, torture, and murders. It notes that “early marriage, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation, at times perpetuated by relief workers and camp managers, are on the rise” among the displaced.
The UN’s special envoy in Syria, Geir Pedersen, has warned that an “all-out military approach” will not solve this problem of the terrorist presence. “And it will come at a completely unacceptable price. What we are now seeing creates the very real prospect of a bloody and protracted last stand on the Turkish border, with grave consequences for civilians — and the risk of dispersal of foreign terrorist fighters and ongoing insurgency afterwards.”
Turkey, which supports groups fighting the Syrian government, is already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
On Tuesday, the child-protection technical adviser for World Vision Syria, Mays Nawayseh, said that Syrian colleagues working in the field were reporting that the situation in Idlib was the worst that they had seen in the nine-year history of the conflict. Some internally displaced people (IDPs) were sleeping in their cars or in the open fields.
World Vision was reaching almost half a million people every month, but, with other agencies, had struggled to maintain access to the region.
“Children don’t have any sanitation, or shelter, or any clothing, or any access to clothing,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing.” World Vision was working to communicate to parents that, even if they had nothing with which to support them, “keeping your children is essential”, in order to address the problem of parents’ leaving their children behind.
She echoed calls for an immediate ceasefire and long-term peace. “We need more funding to save people’s lives and end their suffering,” she said. “And more attention to what is happening in Idlib. . . We are not getting enough attention.”