WICKED is not a word that you expect to hear in the normal political lexicon. So, it brought me up short when an official from the United Nations this week deployed the word. He was talking about what the UN describes as the worst humanitarian catastrophe of Syria’s nine-year-old civil war. It is now unfolding around the north-western city of Idlib.
Idlib is in the news, but for the wrong reasons. The West has become alarmed at the prospect of another flood of refugees from the Middle East after Turkey announced that it will no longer hold back migrants heading for the land and sea borders with Greece — the easiest entry point into the EU, and, potentially, to Britain.
Turkey’s change of policy has come about because it is fed up with the lack of support from the EU on a number of fronts. Negotiations have been stalled for four years over Turkey’s application to join the European Union. The West also refused to sell the Turks a missile defence system — and then complained when they bought one from the Russians instead. Most recently, the EU has failed to back Turkey in its attempt to prevent Syria from its campaign to retake Idlib from the rebel groups that oppose the murderous regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
All this has brought Idlib back into the public spotlight from which it has been so shamefully absent. The north-western province of Syria has been under attack by the Assad government for almost a year. It is the last redoubt of opposition forces. The tactics that are being used against it constitute the same scorched-earth policy that was deployed against previous rebel strongholds. Devastating violence has been deliberately targeted at hospitals, schools, bakeries, markets, and mosques in an attempt to batter the local population into submission. It is Assad’s final killing field.
The UN recently estimated that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 rebel fighters in Idlib and its surrounds. But they are hiding among a population of three million civilians, many of whom had previously fled from other areas targeted by earlier Assad slaughters. This policy of total devastation is supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias. The West’s response to this war crime has been shameful. Britain and Europe have washed their hands of the affair, while the United States is actually withdrawing troops.
The result is that, since December, around 900,000 people have been displaced and have headed for Turkey. The crisis for those who remain has, the UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock says, “reached a horrifying new level”. Traumatised civilians are forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full. Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold. Aid workers are being killed and their relief equipment destroyed.
An immediate ceasefire is essential. Only Russia and Iran can bring that about, but the West can exert pressure for that by offering to ease sanctions on those two nations. It is too easy to shrug that the problem is intractable. To paraphrase Pope Francis, in a crisis where no one is to blame, everyone is to blame.