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Civilian suffering in Idlib, Syria

December 24, 2019

For days, the Syrian regime has bombed the last bastion of resistance in Idlib. Thousands of civilians are fleeing towards the Turkish border as the region sinks further into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Civilians fleeing Idlib, Syria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Watad

"Hello Planet Earth, it's us, the children of Idlib. Russia is killing us." With this horrifying call, young Syrian journalist Merna Alhasan addressed the world on Twitter. Alhasan lives in Idlib, and for weeks has been using her mobile phone and the messaging platform to report on the situation there, showing the world scenes of fleeing and fighting. "People are fleeing the region. Many leave everything they have behind and just want to get out," said the young woman in one video.

A week ago, the Syrian regime launched a new offensive on the Idlib region with the support of the Russian air power. Idlib is the last bastion controlled by rebels and extremists — and Syrian President Bashar Assad wants to bring this area under his control. The areas around the city of Maarat al-Numan are particularly affected by the attacks. This is where the M5 runs — the main road that leads from Damascus to the Turkish border via Aleppo, along which many people try to escape to Turkey. "We have been told that many people who tried to flee north on the highway were attacked again during their escape — by bombs but also by targeted machine gun fire from pro-Assad militias," Till Küster, Syria coordinator of the Medico International aid group, told DW.

Destruction following bombings in Idlib, Syria
The regime's Russian-supported bombing continues on civilian targets in IdlibImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ketaz

Kremlin defends bombings

Russian's military says its campaign against the Maarat al-Numan region is justified because local extremists had refused to leave. The area is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which grew out of al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot. The surrounding region, meanwhile, is under the control of Turkish-affiliated rebels. On Twitter, journalist Alhasan stressed that Turkey "could stop the bloodshed," though she said it has so far failed to live up to its status as the protector of Idlib's civilian population.

Turkey, meanwhile, fears the Russian-Syrian campaign could lead to a bloodbath, which would spark yet another mass refugee exodus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already warned Europe of this possibility, yet has done nothing to help the people of Idlib. Aid group coordinator Küster said the Turkish-Syrian border is shut. And Dirk Hegmanns, who leads the Turkish and Syrian branch of Germany's World Hunger Aid agency, described the local situation as "precarious," with attacks on Idlib becoming "increasingly intense."  

Assad has called this a decisive campaign — and in this fight his troops apparently do not differentiate between civilians and extremists. They are bombing hospitals, first aid facilities and markets, too. Küster said that so far, 100 local hospitals have been attacked. He said some hospitals still remain operational and emergency infrastructure has been built up with international support. But according to Küster, "as far as we can tell, the local infrastructure is totally overwhelmed." Germany's foreign minister has strongly condemned the heavy aerial bombings, with a spokeswoman saying "we are very concerned about the hostilities that have grown more intensive in recent days." She added that the humanitarian situation in Idlib remains catastrophic.

Aid groups sound the alarm

According to the UN, last Friday alone some 20,000 people fled from Idlib province. It is estimated that since the offensive began in April 2019, some 70,000 people have abandoned their homes. A total of 3 million people — most of them internally displaced -— are believed to be trapped in the province. Hegmanns of Germany's World Hunger Aid agency said they deliver wheat to Idlib-based bakeries so they can make bread. So far, he said, aid deliveries are getting through — but it is unclear for how much longer.

Millions of Syrians desperately depend on humanitarian assistance. Germany, Belgium and Kuwait had tabled a proposal to extend existing UN aid missions by another year and to open a 5th border crossing into Syria to bring in supplies. Yet last week, China and Russia vetoed the plan, with Russia arguing for all but two border crossings to be shut and for aid deliveries to be extended by only six months. According to Russia, the humanitarian situation has improved in Syria.

Civilians fleeing Idlib, Syria
Despite the Russian government's claims that the humanitarian situation has improved, people continue to flee Idlib region in droves — many heading toward the Turkish border, despite its closureImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Haj Kadour

But judging by the situation on the ground in Idlib province, this could not be further from the truth. According to activists, some 100 people were killed in recent attacks. The UN, meanwhile, repored that Syria's humanitarian situation has deteriorated compared to last year. Hegmanns therefore hopes that a comprise can somehow be reached with China and Russia.

Turkey and Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement in September 2018 for Idlib province. But Assad has ignored the deal, launching an offensive on Idlib last April that has now intensified. Journalist Alhasan has called on civilians to help each other, saying that "we cannot expect outside help; the world is not listing to our appeals." Küster, of Medico International, confirmed that many Syrians feel this way. "These people are sensing that Europe will not come to their help, will not rescue them," he said. Many Syrians feel abandoned, he underlined, as Assad and Russia create facts on the ground.