In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Syrian civil war continues to wreak havoc on the lives and rights of the communities residing in the last rebel held areas in the North-West of the country. New research conducted by Amnesty International demonstrates how between December 2019 and March 2020, Syrian forces, backed by Russia, were responsible for the displacement of close to one million people. These communities have been forced into already crowded refugee camps, empty farms and schools, or even reduced to camping in open terrain. In this time of great need, humanitarian aid has been woefully insufficient. Terrorist linked rebel factions have been regulating aid administered by humanitarian organizations, resulting in cuts to international funding. A U.N. security council resolution authorizing cross-border aid without the consent of the Syrian government is also due to expire in July, this year.
Amnesty International’s report presented evidence showing that “the documented attacks by Syrian and Russian government forces entailed a myriad of serious violations of international humanitarian law… The attacks were not directed at a specific military object and they violated the immunity from direct attack of civilians and civilian objects,” particularly medical personnel, and children. These violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The brutality of these attacks is also highlighted by the level of violence, including cluster munitions banned under international law. Those wishing to return to places of residence, in retaken areas, after the ceasefire in March 2020 face rebuttals from Syrian forces. The report notes “credible reports of Syrian government forces unlawfully killing civilians and mutilating their bodies in towns they have retaken.”
Despite these attacks, the international response has been virtually non-existent in the age of COVID-19. International attention at every level has dropped, with events that had previously dominated news channels receiving almost no coverage. The coverage of the plight of those affected is vital if humanitarian needs are to be met. As a result of the pandemic, donations have fallen as international funding has focused on the virus’ more localized impacts, leaving the North-West region ever more unprepared and vulnerable to any outbreak of COVID-19. As DW, the German broadcaster, reported, the city of Idlib has a mere two intensive care units in a region that populates 3 million people.
It has been almost 10 years since the initial protests that led to the outbreak of the war. In that time, hundreds of thousands have died and over 10 million have been displaced, and as this report presents, there is no end in sight to the violence. What is so particularly alarming about this report’s findings is the scale with which the violence has taken place in relation to the rest of the war, with displacements between November and March making up a tenth of those in the entire conflict. Whilst these attacks further weaken the last remaining rebel forces, this is no indication that the suffering will cease as resistance is quashed.
This report indicates that Syrian government forces continue to terrorise and use innocent civilians as tools in the fight against the last rebel-backed factions in Syria. Their atrocities amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Amnesty International’s report concludes, “humanitarian assistance is needed more than ever.” Yet the support that is needed appears to be lacking when it is most needed, further hindering the rights and safety of those attacked. In the age of COVID-19, the direct impacts of the virus on the communities are compounded by the virus’ knock-on effects on the aid available to the agencies that are battling in already dire circumstances. The international community must do more.