On Monday November 13, airstrikes on a market in a northern Syrian town and “de-escalation zone” have killed an estimated 61 people. Market-goers were crushed under the wreckage or blown apart by the explosion. At least three airstrikes targeted Atareb, a small town on the periphery of Aleppo swollen with the influx of refugees fleeing nearby war zones. Who was behind the vicious attacks is yet to be known, or may never be determined. Residents and local commentators, who have become accustomed to identifying planes by their model, flight course, and armaments, are emphatically assigning blame to Russia, a key military sponsor of Syrian President and brutal dictator Bashar Assad. The deafening silence from Turkey, Iran and Russia, the three orchestrators and guarantors of an agreement to de-escalate conflict in Syria, has catalyzed concern across the international community pertaining to the sincerity of their commitment to protect innocent civilians from the sorts of terror that befell Atareb.
Speaking to the Associated Press 12 hours into the aftermath of the attack, the Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue volunteers, broadly coined the White Helmets, said they had resigned any hope of finding survivors. “It doesn’t seem to matter if we are bombed or not,” said twenty-six year old Fayyad Akoush, a survivor of the attack. Despite the facade of diplomatic efforts exuded by Syria’s neighbouring countries, the incessant employment of military force across Syrian towns points to a conclusion that perhaps the agreement is merely symbolic. Speaking to this point, UN humanitarian expert Jan Egeland said “(The zones) did de-escalate fighting,” though recently “there has been markedly increased conflict – a complete catastrophe.” In the hours following the airstrike, the Tahrir al-Sham jihadist alliance condemned the ceasefire talks and vowed to continue their offensive against government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies. “This aggression and crimes confirms for us that there is no solution with the colonizers without fighting and struggling,” it said.
Russian culpability for the airstrikes would be no surprise. Since May, when delegates for Turkey, Iran and Russia each signed a document of principles in the Kazakh capital of Astana detailing four zones of protection, the Russian air force has been attached to several attacks that have persecuted civilians in Damascus, as well as across north-west Syria. The Red Cross has said 10 medical facilities have been destroyed in the alleged Russian crossfire, and Save the Children have revealed that 55 of the 60 schools in the province were instructed to close while students sheltered in bunkers.
Atareb and its surrounding area remain outside the control of the Damascus government, which is endeavouring to reclaim all of Syria after a horrific six years of civil war that has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced a sobering 11 million others – half of Syria’s pre-war population.
Looking forward, peace and stability in Syria is far from tangible. While one would not be misplaced in holding their reservations about the de-escalation plan for Syria, the sentiment of the agreement for Syria is a step in the right direction; diplomatic and founded in the pursuit of easing conflict. Like any plan though, its worth is only as valuable as its execution. Russia, Iran and Turkey, under the watch and with the support of the wider international community, must honour their commitment to protect civilians caught in the crossfire of Syria’s devastating civil war, and circumvent the sort of horror that struck market-goers in the town of Atareb.