Syria's Idlib at Risk of Humanitarian Disaster
By Margaret Besheer July 30, 2019
The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Tuesday the Syrian province of Idlib is at risk of becoming "the worst humanitarian disaster the world has seen so far this century," as Russian-backed Syrian government forces continue a campaign against one of the last rebel hold outs.
"For more than 90 days now, bombing and shelling by the government of Syria, backed by the Russian Federation, has produced carnage in the so-called de-escalation zone of Idlib," Mark Lowcock told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
He said at least 450 civilians have been killed since late April, including more than 100 just in the past two weeks. More than 440,000 have been displaced, many for the fourth or fifth time.
"You in this Security Council have ignored all the previous pleas you have heard," Lowcock said. "You know what is happening and you have done nothing for 90 days as the carnage continues in front of your eyes." He asked if they would shrug their shoulders or listen to the children of Idlib and do something about it.
He spoke of satellite imagery detailing damage to the town of Kafr Nabutha in southern Idlib, which he later showed reporters.
One picture taken before the campaign started in April shows a densely built-up area. The second picture, taken on June 27, told a much more grim story.
"Almost every building destroyed in a three-month period," Lowcock said. "Such satellite imagery has shown 17 entire villages almost completely destroyed and emptied."
He told the council that the level of destruction is consistent with a bombing campaign "aimed at a scorched earth policy."
Lowcock acknowledged that individuals associated with the Security Council-designated terror group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusrah Front) are present in Idlib, but estimated the ratio is one fighter for every 100 civilians.
The U.N. has for months been raising the alarm on the apparent targeting of hospitals and schools for airstrikes.
Humanitarian organizations provide the U.N. with their coordinates or planned movements, which are then shared with the international coalition forces, Turkey and Russia, in order to prevent them from being accidentally struck.
"Whether the information provided through the deconfliction system is being used by the parties to protect civilian facilities from attack or to target them for attack is an extremely important question," the aid chief said.
He noted that he has asked Russian officials for clarification of what they do with the information provided to them, but said he has not received a response.
There has been a surge in the number of medical facilities hit in airstrikes since April 29, when the escalation on Idlib began.
"Since then, PHR [Physicians for Human Rights] has received reports of 46 attacks on health care facilities," said Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in remarks to the council.
"So far, using PHR's rigorous methodology, we have confirmed 16 of them and are still counting." Sirkin called such attacks a "deliberate, inhumane, illegal strategy of war."
"When hospitals are destroyed, the loss is far greater than the buildings," she noted. "When medical workers are killed, the human toll is not just their lives, but also the exponential number of people who suffer and die without medical treatment."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed accusations against his government's air forces.
"Today it was said that the Russia Federation deliberately – deliberately – is conducting airstrikes using bombs targeting hospitals and schools. This is a lie," Nebenzia told the council.
The Syrian government wrote to the Security Council on July 16 addressing allegations its forces had targeted hospitals and health care centers in Idlib.
In its letter, Damascus says the allegations are false, because several of the facilities it struck have been taken over by terrorist groups and are no longer functioning medical facilities. Only five medical facilities are listed by name in the letter, an additional 114 health centers are mentioned but not identified.
The U.N. humanitarian chief took issue with the Syrian characterization, noting that at least two of the five named facilities are functioning and being funded by the U.N. and donors.
The British ambassador pointed out that under the Geneva Conventions, warnings are required to be given even if a hospital is being used as a military asset.
"Under that International Humanitarian Law, just because a hospital or clinic has been 'decommissioned' or 'ransacked' does not mean it can be attacked with impunity," Ambassador Karen Pierce said. "No warnings are being given."
Call for investigation
Pierce joined the call of several other council members for an investigation into U.N. de-conflicted sites.
"It is of the utmost importance to establish clearly the circumstances of the attacks through a transparent and credible investigation," she said.
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