UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

Residents of the Idlib province flee toward the Syrian Turkish border on September 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 September 2018
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UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

  • Russian and Syrian warplanes resumed their bombing campaign last week
  • Idlib is the last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century. “There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock said in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest opposition-held zone left in the country.
Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: Secular fighters, radicals, Syrian terrorists with ties to Al-Qaeda — and their foreign counterparts.
It is home to some 3 million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.
Foreign terrorists now face a fight to the last to hold onto Idlib, their final bastion.
Lowcock acknowledged that “there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organizations.”
But he stressed that “there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.”
“We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,” he said, warning that “civilians are severely at risk.”

Detailed planning
A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organizations were all doing “very detailed planning” to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province.
“We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,” he said.
He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into regime-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.
The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale operation.
“It is a very major preoccupation for us,” he said.
The non-Syrian combatants in Idlib include fighters from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China’s ethnic Uighur minority who cut their teeth in other wars but then swarmed to Syria to take up the cause.
The threatened assault by the regime could deprive the few thousand left of their last stronghold in their adopted homeland.
“These are people who cannot be integrated into Syria really, under any circumstances, who have nowhere to go and who may just be ready to die in any case,” says Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“So they’re a real stumbling block to any solution,” said Heller.
In a bid to avert an assault, the top three power brokers in Syria’s war — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — agreed on Friday to work together on “stabilizing” Idlib. But they revealed few details.
A major obstacle to a substantive agreement, observers say, is the fate of terrorists in the province, including foreign hard-liners.


Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

Displaced Syrian children attend class at a makeshift school in the village of Muhandiseen, in the south western countryside of the Aleppo province, on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 34 min 31 sec ago
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Syrian children study on the ground in abandoned villa

  • Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side

ALEPPO, Syria: In rebel-held northern Syria, displaced children sit or lie on the ground of an unfinished villa, bending over their notebooks to apply themselves as they write the day’s lesson.
Four teachers instruct around 100 children — girls and boys aged six to 12 — at the makeshift school in an opposition-held area in the west of the northern province of Aleppo.
Between the bare walls of the villa abandoned mid-construction, children sit or lie on sheets or plain carpets, their small backpacks cast by their side.
Dubbed “Buds of Hope,” the teaching facility has no desks, library or even working toilets.
Instead, the air wafts in from beyond the pine trees outside through the gaping windows in the cement wall.
Dressed in a bright blue T-shirt and jeans, her hair neatly tied back in a pony tail, a barefoot girl kneels over her book, carefully writing.
“This isn’t a school,” says 11-year-old Ali Abdel Jawad.
“There aren’t any classrooms, no seats, nothing. We’re sitting on the ground,” he says.
In one classroom, a gaggle of veiled young girls sit on a bench, as the teacher explains the lesson to one of their male counterparts near a rare white board.
In another, the school’s only female teacher perches on a plastic chair, as her students gather around on the floor, their backs against the wall.

Some sit with their knees drawn on a plastic woven carpet, their shoes neatly by its side.
The children — as well as their teachers — have been displaced from their homes in other parts of Syria due to the seven-year war, a teacher told an AFP photographer.
Some hail from Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a former rebel stronghold that fell back under regime control in April after a blistering offensive and surrender deals.
Others come from the central provinces of Hama or Homs.
A dry fountain lies in the courtyard outside the villa’s elegant facade, where girls link arms and swing around in a circle.
Schools in opposition-held areas are generally funded by aid organizations, but have in the past been hit by bombardment.
“We’re always scared of bombardment and of the situation in general,” says one of the teachers, giving his name as Mohammed.
The building lies in rebel-held territory adjacent to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo city to the east, but also the major opposition stronghold of Idlib to the west.
Some three million people live in the Idlib province and adjacent areas of the neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, around half of them displaced by war in other parts of Syria.
Earlier this month, many feared a regime assault on Idlib, but last week Damascus ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara announced a deal to temporarily halt it.