On Saturday May 5th, 9 civilians were killed in the north – western province of Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the Syrian opposition forces. The weekend attack is part of a wider upsurge in violence against the enclave in the past week and represents the heaviest fighting the region has seen in months which has killed 44 since April 26th. Syrian and Russian warplanes have battered the region, destroying hospitals and killing dozens, reportedly with indiscriminate barrel bombs. Tens of thousands have been displaced as residents evacuate to areas further north.
Comments by David Swanson of the UNOCHA were reported in France 24, “Since February, over 138,500 women, children and men have been displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib… Between April 1st and 28th, it’s estimated that more than 32,500 individuals have moved to different communities in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama governorates,”.
As reported by The National, “Now the bombing has returned and is much heavier and has spread very widely in Jabal Al Zawiya and rural northern Hama. The planes are not stopping at all and the bombing is continuing in a very big way”, said Ahmad Al Dbis, safety and security manager for the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports medical facilities in the area.
As reported by Reuters, Khaula Sawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations said “Medical facilities are being evacuated, leaving the most vulnerable with no access to medical care. We are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe”.
The area is controlled by a mix of militant groups, but the radical extremist group Hayat Tahir al – Sham is the most dominant. HTS developed out of the Syrian Al – Qaeda branch called al – Nusra Front and supports radical extremist agendas, such as limited freedoms for women. The latest escalation comes after the group and other al – Qaeda affiliates launched widespread attacks on regime forces across the region, killing up to 60 people.
The whole area is labelled a de-escalation zone and includes Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces, home to three million people. The de–escalation zone was part of a deal brokered in Sochi in September 2018 by the principle backers of the two sides, Turkey and Russia. It was agreed that Assad wouldn’t invade the area and Turkey would make efforts to rein in the activities of HTS. This recent escalation has led some to question whether the deal is in jeopardy. Russia has increased its rhetoric in recent weeks labelling the opposition as terrorists preparing a chemical attacks on Syrian regime territory. However recent statements by Putin state that while he doesn’t rule out a full scale attack in the future, such an operation would be impractical right now. It goes without saying that such an attack would be devastating for the population still living in Idlib and would likely lead to another wave of refugees and unnecessary deaths. Such a decision by Putin is likely part of a bigger geo-political picture involving both the US and Russia fighting for influence over Turkey. Russia is pushing to sell it’s S-400 missile system to Turkey, whilst the US has said this would likely incur sanctions.
On April 25thand 26th, the latest round of talks of the Astana peace process took place in Nursultan, Kazakhstan, to no avail. Leaders should recognise that there are civilians who depend on their negotiations in order to return to a normal life. Both parties should respect the commendable ceasefire arrangements made in September last year, and work to reduce casualties and displaced persons.
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