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Over 100 Syrian civilians have been killed in airstrikes launched by the Russian-backed Syrian regime over a 10-day period; both Syria and Russia have denied culpability for the deaths. Despite claims that civilian infrastructures were not targeted, Al Jazeera reports that the strikes have decimated schools, markets, and hospitals, among other non-military sites. The airstrikes and subsequent killings are focused in Idlib, a northwestern region of Syria and the last rebel-controlled sector of the country holding out against the Syrian government and its allies. Perhaps the most significant strike came on July 22nd, when the direct destruction of a market in the town of Maaret al-Numan resulted in at least 40 casualties. Children and rescue workers partly populate these death tolls. On the same day, rebel bombings of Aleppo killed seven people, according to Middle East Eye. Other towns the Syrian regime has struck with airstrikes, as documented by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, include Maar Sharin on July 16th, Urum al-Jawaz on July 21st, Saraqib on July 22nd, and Ariha, Muhambal, and Tabish all on July 24th. This list is not exhaustive.
Eyewitnesses and the Syria Civil Defense contend that Russia struck Maaret al-Numan, to which Russia’s Ministry of Defence has responded, “The statements of anonymous representatives of the White Helmets organization, financed by Britain and the U.S. about an alleged strike by Russian planes on a market in Maarat al-Numan are fake.” Russia claims that it has not flown any missions in the area and is clearly willing to render accusations of political bias to defend itself. The Syria Civil Defense, otherwise known as the White Helmets, lost a rescue worker to the “double-tap” air raid, in which the site of a first strike is hit again after a crowd has gathered.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has rightfully excoriated both the regimes responsible for the chronic airstrikes and other nations for their relative quiescence. Her declamations include the observations that “These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident” and “Now, airstrikes kill and maim significant numbers of civilians several times a week, and the response seems to be a collective shrug.” Over 100 civilian deaths across a series of strikes within little more than a week lends no credence to notions of accidental collateral damage; the repeated destruction of civilian buildings and lives could only have arisen from deliberate intent or abject indifference, neither of which are suitable, ethically or legally, for motivating airstrikes in civilian zones. Beyond their violation of international law, the Russia-backed Syrian regime has not adduced evidence that a campaign of airstrikes against largely non-military populaces has been or will be reasonably effective in subduing rebel forces.
The airstrikes of the past two weeks only continue a horrid nine-year struggle that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from conflicts between the Syrian government and opposing rebel groups. Michelle Bachelet’s office recorded around 450 civilian deaths occurring in the months since this most recent bombing campaign commenced. The Syrian government claims that the rebels broke the ceasefire first, provoking the campaign. The nation of Syria has also experienced airstrikes originating from Israel, which is reportedly seeking to eliminate Hezbollah forces in southern Syria. These raids have killed at least nine individuals, six of them Iranians.
The practice of bombing civilians, whether with explicit intention or sheer negligence, always demands the utmost scrutiny. Declarations of necessity or inadvertence from an offending government rarely stand up to critical attention. Whether the plight of Syrian civilians in Idlib has remained a relatively minor news story due to exhaustion over documenting the endless death tolls of the Syrian civil war or to hesitance to draw attention towards other nations and regimes that have struck non-military populations, this violation of international law remains intolerable. Neither the ethics nor the legality, nor the effectiveness of slaughtering civilians should ever become objects of complacency.