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.


Russia: Extremist alliance will not withdraw from Idlib zone

Militants in Syria’s Idlib failed to meet a deadline to leave a planned buffer zone ringing the country’s last rebel bastion. (AFP)
Updated 17 November 2018
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Russia: Extremist alliance will not withdraw from Idlib zone

  • Sporadic fighting continued to be recorded in places with a residual terrorist presence, primarily in Idlib: Russia
  • Turkey has designated HTS, which is led by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (JFS), a terrorist organization

ANKARA: Turkey has failed to persuade the rebel alliance Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) to withdraw from a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib province that was agreed by Ankara and Moscow in September, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
“Sporadic fighting continued to be recorded in places with a residual terrorist presence, primarily in Idlib… Militants continued shelling western Aleppo,” said ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
On Thursday, Turkish and Russian officials met in Ankara ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Istanbul on Nov. 19.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, said although there are serious problems with implementation of the Idlib agreement, Russian officials stressed that the process requires time and effort.
“Russia doesn’t want to push Turkey because there’s a much more important thing: Constitutional dialogue between the Syrian opposition and government, where Turkish-Russian dialogue plays a decisive role,” he told Arab News. 
“(Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan publicly undertook obligations to clear the (Idlib) zone from terrorists,” Akhmetov said. 
“Ankara is also having a hard time with the US regarding the Syrian Kurds. I think Russia will find ways to exploit this situation.”
Turkey has designated HTS, which is led by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (JFS), a terrorist organization.
Under the Turkish-Russian deal, rebel groups, including HTS, were to withdraw from the demilitarized zone by mid-October.
Ankara has repeatedly indicated its readiness to use force against radical groups if they refuse to withdraw.
Turkey has reinforced its military presence in Idlib with armored vehicles and equipment. It has 12 military posts in the province.
Enes Ayasli, a research assistant and Middle East expert at Sakarya University in Turkey, said the most obvious setback of the Idlib deal is that moderate rebel groups in the province now back HTS if there is a clash between it and Syrian regime forces.
“Their focus is now on repelling regime forces even if it means violating the deal,” he told Arab News. 
“Turkey in this sense seems to have failed to separate moderate groups completely from extremists.”
An intensification of fighting between the regime and extremists may cause the deal to collapse completely, Ayasli said.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported an increased rate of violations of the Idlib demilitarized zone.