Idlib might as well be the Arabic word for hell. This area of Northwest Syria has received the mother of all pummellings. Just since 26 April, over 700 people have been killed, 518,000 displaced and at least 17 hospitals and medical centres hit. Images of towns like Khan Sheikhoun look every bit as devastated as say Shuja’iyya in Gaza in 2014 after the Israeli bombings of 2014 or Mosul and Raqqa after the US-led anti-Isis coalition.
This is the ugly, brutal heartless face of modern warfare. Civilians as targets are besieged; forced to flee their homes. Deliberate pressure on civilians is used to intimidate opposing forces and enemies. Civilians and civilian infrastructure that were once meant to be non-targets during wartime increasingly have become the primary targets. Overall according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) between March 2011-July 2019, there were 578 attacks on 350 health facilities in Syria, with 890 medical personnel killed. The UN insists it gave the Russians the coordinates of the hospitals to prevent them from being destroyed. Schools and bakeries are not spared from this bombing bonanza. The Syrian government and Russian military carried out the overwhelming majority of these bombings and shellings.
Ceasefires save lives in the short-term though any resumption of hostilities soon ramp the fatality rate back up. Is this ceasefire fully over? Perhaps the parties might try to reintroduce it again. This time it had only lasted three days. The Syrian government announced it would respect the ceasefire from midnight on 2 August, 2019 in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Air strikes certainly had resumed by 5 August, acknowledged by state media. The government blames its opponents for violating the truce. A ceasefire in June had lasted barely a day.
The latest ceasefire may have already fallen apart but even if it sort of survives, it will all fall apart again, in days, weeks perhaps months because there is absolutely no political horizon. Syrians from one point of view cannot speak to Syrians of another. Why? Largely because their external patrons prevent them from doing so. The U.N is marginalised to the point of ridicule and the Astana process embeds a carve up of the country into Russian, Iranian and Turkish spheres. Many fear that Turkey may sacrifice Idlib, consent to a full on regime onslaught in exchange for Russian-Syrian government agreement for a Turkish military invasion of the North-East of Syria.
Russia had wanted Turkish implementation of the agreement in just 24 hours including the pull back of both militants and weapons from the de-escalation zone. A key demand was that the Damascus-Aleppo road must be unblocked. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate which dominates Idlib, refused to budge from the buffer zone that should be around 15 kilometres deep along the ceasefire lines.
One has to wonder why talks on implementing the September 2018 Astana deal succeeded even if briefly this month? The Russians and the Syrian government had failed to advance significantly into Idlib in the way they had expected. Committing ground forces is costly and victory from the air alone may not be possible. They can wait. Idlib does not have to be retaken this month as far as they are concerned.
Starving civilians cannot wait. Delivering aid to them is extremely challenging and it is estimated that between 80-90,000 survive in tents. Leaving Idlib is also barely an option as Turkey closed its borders and has no intention of letting in more refugees. Exiting across 100km of the Turkey-Idlib frontier appears not to be an option. Reports show that on the contrary, Turkey is deporting Syrians back to Syria against their will making them sign documents to say they are returning voluntarily. Half of the three million Syrians in Idlib had gone there fleeing from violence in other areas of Syria and some were actually forcibly transferred there as part of ceasefire deals. This time there is no exit, no safe haven to disappear to, not even for the million of them who are children. Panos Moumtzis, the UN's humanitarian chief for Syria, was clear. "These people don't know where to go."
What is abundantly clear it that other powers barely have any influence over proceedings. The UN warns of yet another impending humanitarian disaster, as if Idlib has not been in a humanitarian disaster for years. The US says nothing of substance and seems curiously disinterested given the presence of extreme jihadists in Idlib. This is partially because HTS has realised that the US leaves them alone as long as their activities remain local and not transnational. The EU simply has no Syria strategy and does what it does best – issue repetitive pro-forma press releases of condemnation. Where once the world used to claim it cared about the fate of Syrian civilians, on the ground this feels even further from the truth.
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