According to UNICEF, the UN children agency, 134 children have been killed in the past few weeks of heavy bombing conducted by the Syrian-Russian military alliance. The children, and three million other civilians in the Idlib region, are trapped in one of the last places held by rebel groups after Syria’s eight-year civil war and half the population has fled to the city from other parts of the country.
“Children bear no responsibility for this war yet they suffer its carnage and consequences more than anyone,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said.
The province has come under heavy attack in the past three weeks from Russian warplanes and pro-government forces. Syrian soldiers on the ground have also regained control of at least 12 villages clustered around Idlib’s southern corner, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group based in Britain.
Journalist Mohannad Darwish, who was born in Idlib, told the Independent: “The bombing has been very intense, and it is relentless. Civilians are being targeted. The amount of destruction is enormous. You can’t imagine how awful this kind of killing is.”
The Targeting of Hospitals
In a letter published in the Observer on 2 June, dozens of prominent doctors have called for urgent action to halt the bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian planes that has targeted more than 20 hospitals in Syria’s north-west, putting many out of action and leaving millions of people without proper healthcare. They have also destroyed key parts of the healthcare system, the letter said.
“We are appalled by the deliberate and systematic targeting of healthcare facilities and medical staff,” they warned. “Their [the medical staff’s] job is to save lives, they must not lose their own in the process.”
The doctors have urged the UN to investigate the targeting of listed hospitals and asked the international community to put pressure on Russia and Syria to stop targeting medical centres and reverse funding cuts to surviving hospitals and clinics that are now overwhelmed by refugees.
Signatories include Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist who won the Nobel peace prize last year, Peter Agre, a physician who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2003, MP and doctor Sarah Wollaston, and Terence English, former president of the Royal College of Surgeons, as well as David Nott, a surgeon who works in war zones, and Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian exile, doctor and founder of a medical charity.
Around 80 medical facilities – including clinics and hospitals – have been shut because of damage in attacks or because of fear they will be targeted, Mohamad Katoub from the Syrian American Medical Society told The Guardian. The huge number of refugees displaced by attacks has left those that are still operating overwhelmed.
“The tactic of attacking health and other civilian infrastructure in Syria is not new, displacement is not new, these are all chronic issues. But this is the biggest displacement ever, and it is much further beyond our capacity as NGOs to respond,” he said.
The Joint Syrian-Russian Military Alliance
On 31 May, Moscow suggested that it would continue to back a month-long Syrian government offensive in Idlib. In a statement, the Kremlin said it was Turkey’s responsibility to stop rebels in Idlib from firing on civilian and Russian targets. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has long complained to Moscow about the Russian-backed Syrian government attacks against rebels who control the country’s northwest.
Since 26 April, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has carried out hundreds of attacks every day across areas in the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates under the control of anti-government groups, killing an estimated 200 civilians. The joint military operation has used internationally banned and other indiscriminate weapons in unlawful attacks on civilians in northwest Syria in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch said on 3 June.
“The Syrian-Russian military alliance is using a cocktail of internationally banned and indiscriminate weapons on a trapped civilian population,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Russia has abused its position at the UN Security Council to protect itself and its ally in Damascus, and to continue these abuses against civilians.”
The offensive in Idlib is the biggest escalation of the war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel opponents of his government since last summer, and has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis as Syrians displaced by the fighting seek shelter at the Turkish border. More than 200,000 people have fled the violence in the region since the strikes began at the end of April, according to the United Nations. The eight-year Syrian conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people.
In a statement, top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini and the union’s humanitarian aid chief Christos Stylianides demanded Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran “fulfill immediately their responsibilities and commitments, and ensure the immediate protection of civilians.” It added: “Indiscriminate attacks on women and children and other civilians, their displacement, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure cannot be justified under any circumstances.”