Idlib casualties mount as assault leaves aid efforts in the balance
The recent escalation in the Syrian regime bombardment of Idlib has killed at least 10 more civilians.
The deaths were reported on Wednesday, 24 hours after a senior UN official had warned the security council that aid efforts in the enclave were in danger of being “overwhelmed”.
The latest violence followed Tuesday’s death toll of an estimated 30 civilians, reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the highest figure since the Damascus regime increased attacks on Idlib in late April.
Airstrikes and shelling by both government and Russian warplanes have claimed a mounting number of civilian lives over the past few weeks, threatening a fragile truce deal brokered by Moscow and Ankara in September.
In villages struck by regime raids, excavators dug new graves and civilians buried the dead stealthily at dusk to avoid being targeted by more air raids.
Idlib is a jihadist enclave controlled by Syria’s former Al-Qaida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The city is home to almost 3 million people, a significant number of whom were allowed to reach the area under previous ceasefire deals that allowed fighters to evacuate to the area.
The enclave is supposed to be protected from a large-scale offensive by a buffer zone deal signed in September by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, which shares a border with Idlib.
But deadly bombardment by the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian ally has spiked in recent weeks, and pro-government fighters have seized several towns on the city’s southern flank.
The latest deaths came as Ursula Mueller, the UN’s assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, briefed the security council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, warning that so far this month “heavy shelling and aerial bombardment had resulted in the confirmed deaths of more than 160 civilians and the displacement of some 270,000 people”.
Muller added: “Since 28 April, that is in the last four weeks, a total of 25 attacks on healthcare have been reported by the World Health Organization, including on 22 health facilities, with some having been hit more than once.”
Echoing fears of a renewed humanitarian catastrophe, Mueller continued: “Further military operations will overwhelm all ability to respond. Many of our humanitarian partners are part of the affected population and have themselves been displaced. As a result, in many areas of active hostilities, humanitarian operations have been suspended.”
The latest deaths were disclosed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring organisation, which said that seven of Wednesday’s victims were killed in an air raid on the village of Sarja.
Analysts predict that the Assad government and its allies will continue to chip away at the area while stopping short of a major assault that would create chaos on Turkey’s doorstep.
“I strongly doubt this offensive will aim to retake the entire Idlib region,” said Aron Lund of the Century Foundation, a US-based thinktank.
“Retaking the whole area would be a massive undertaking that Turkey would be sure to resist, not least because it would send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming toward the Turkish border.”
Among healthcare facilities damaged on Tuesday were two hospitals, including one of the major trauma centres in Idlib.
“The bombing of hospitals is disgraceful and the closure of one of Idlib’s largest trauma centres will have a devastating impact on innocent men, women and children who have become collateral damage in this brutal crisis,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, Syria country director for Islamic Relief, which has supported health facilities in the city, including one relocated to a cave to protect it from attack.
“People are simply terrified and do not know what is going to happen next. In the past few weeks some 300,000 people have had to leave their homes out of fear, and hundreds of thousands of others think that they will be next.
“Ramadan is supposed to be a holy month, where families and friends can gather in peace, but in north-west Syria there is simply no respite. There is an ever-shrinking amount of food and supplies of basic medicine are fast running out.
“Hospitals have had to shut their doors or reduce their services. Schools are not operating in many areas and now mosques are having to close because time and again in this crisis, places where civilians gather have been seen as fair game and have left people feeling like absolutely nowhere is safe.”
The escalating violence has prompted repeated warnings about the potential humanitarian impact of a full-scale battle for Idlib.
Earlier this month, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian affairs coordinator, delivered an uncompromising message to the security council: “When I briefed you here on September 18, I said a full-scale military onslaught could result in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century,” he said.
“Despite our warnings, our worst fears are now coming true.”