Idlib assault ‘may spark humanitarian calamity’

Syrians protest against the regime and its ally Russia in northern Idlib on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 01 September 2018
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Idlib assault ‘may spark humanitarian calamity’

  • A worst-case scenario in Idlib will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis, says UN representative
  • Idlib and slivers of adjacent provinces form the largest remaining block of rebel territory

BEIRUT:Its hospitals are battered, residents heavily dependent on aid and escape routes to neighboring Turkey sealed. If attacked by regime forces, Syria’s opposition-held Idlib is poised for a humanitarian calamity.

The northwestern province, which lies along the border with Turkey, has been held since 2015 by the extremist-led Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance and other rival rebels.

Idlib and slivers of adjacent provinces form the largest remaining block of rebel territory — and the next expected target of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops and their Russian allies.

But a military assault could overwhelm already struggling health facilities, cut off food and medical supplies to desperate civilians, and prompt massive levels of displacement, the UN has warned.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday he was “deeply concerned about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation in Idlib.”

“A worst-case scenario in Idlib will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis,” John Ging, who heads operations and advocacy for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office told the Security Council this week.

Moscow and Ankara are in talks to try to thrash out a solution that would spare the three million people living in rebel territory.

They include tens of thousands of rebels and civilians evacuated to Idlib from other areas recaptured by government troops.

Since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, more than 350,000 people have been killed, more than 11 million have fled their homes and medical infrastructure has been systematically targeted.

In the first six months of this year, there were 38 attacks on medical infrastructure in the province, most of them blamed on the government or its Russian ally, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (OCHA).

The World Health Organization warned that less than half of Idlib’s health facilities were still functioning “across areas that may soon witness increased violence.”

“The remaining facilities are neither properly equipped nor prepared for a massive influx of patients,” said Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria. “Any offensive will make an already precarious situation even worse,” he said.

In the event of a chemical attack on the densely populated province, hospitals will likely struggle to cope.

Western powers have warned Syrian troops could use toxic substances against the civilian population as they seek to recapture Idlib.

Earlier this year, the UN began sharing the GPS coordinates of health facilities with Russia and the US in a bid to protect them but four have been struck since.

The UN and humanitarian groups are also deeply worried about the food, medicine and other aid they truck in through the Bab Al-Hawa and Bab Al-Salam crossings to some 2 million people in need in Idlib and adjacent areas.

“Cross-border operations provided a lifeline for civilians in regard to food supplies and other daily life products needed,” said Krzysiek. “If border crossings with Turkey are to shut down, hundreds of thousands of people will be affected.”

Aid operations could also be disrupted if key staff are caught up in the offensive, said OCHA’s spokeswoman in Damascus, Linda Tom.

“The potential displacement of humanitarian staff would further contribute to gaps in the response,” she said.

She said violence could force as many as 800,000 people to flee in one of the Syrian war’s largest displacements yet.  The question, aid groups have warned, is where to. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov of “defending the assault.”

“Sergey Lavrov is defending Syrian and Russian assault on #Idlib,” Pompeo tweeted. 

“The Russians and Assad agreed not to permit this. The US sees this as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict.”

He added: “The 3 million Syrians, who have already been forced out of their homes and are now in #Idlib, will suffer from this aggression. Not good. The world is watching.”

An uptick in violence is likely to push residents to the frontier en masse in the hope that warplanes will not strike there.

“People from Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs, Daraa — they used to be brought to Idlib,” said Zedoun Alzoubi, who heads the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.

Those areas were handed over to regime forces in surrender deals, with many opposition fighters and civilians bussed to Idlib.

“But now people who are in Idlib — where to go?” asked Alzoubi.


Turkey-backed fighters await ‘zero hour’ to attack Syria’s Manbij

Updated 48 min 21 sec ago
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Turkey-backed fighters await ‘zero hour’ to attack Syria’s Manbij

  • The YPG fear the US withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria
  • The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups

JARABLUS, SYRIA: Opposition commander Adnan Abu Faisal and his army are encamped near the frontline in northern Syria, waiting to launch an offensive on his home city of Manbij.

But they are not the ones who will decide whether to march on the strategically important city, held for more than two years by Kurdish forces supported by the US.

The decision will depend on Turkey, the main backer of Abu Faisal’s group, and on how contacts evolve between Washington and Ankara over the US plans to withdraw forces from Syria, a move set to reshape a major theater of the war.

The US and Turkey are allies both in the NATO defense alliance and in the fight against Daesh, but Ankara sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces that helped the US-led coalition drive Daesh out of Manbij in 2016 as a security threat.

The YPG fear the US withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria, including Manbij, but US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey of “economic devastation” if it goes ahead with the attack.

Abu Faisal’s fighters are awaiting orders near Jarablus, a town held by Turkey and its Syrian opposition allies about 35 km south of Manbij. The frontline in the area runs through open farmland where wheat and corn are usually grown.

“We are ready with our forces ... for ‘zero hour’ to begin any military action,” Abu Faisal, whose forces have more than 300 vehicles including pickup trucks and armored vehicles provided by Turkey, told Reuters.

“Preparations are going at full speed,” he said.

Abu Faisal, 36, was an army captain before Syria’s civil war began in 2011 but defected from the Syrian Army in 2012 to join the fight against Bashar Assad.

Abu Faisal helped wrest control of Manbij from the Syrian Army early in the conflict but fled when it was seized by Daesh in 2014 and has not set foot there since then.

The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups that hold the city 30 km from the border with Turkey.

Manbij lies near the junction of three separate blocks of territory that form spheres of Russian, Turkish and, for now, US influence.

The US military pullout will not only leave Kurds exposed to possible confrontation with Turkey but will also open the way for the expansion of Russian and Iranian sway into the areas that US forces will be leaving.

The US military deployed into Syria as part of the fight against Daesh but officials later indicated wider objectives included containing Iran, Assad’s main regional ally. 

Late last month, the YPG called on Assad’s forces to protect Manbij from attack by Turkey. Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia, answered the YPG appeal by deploying outside Manbij.

Abu Faisal’s fighters, backed by Turkish forces, made their own advance toward the city the same day but stopped short of an attack.