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Military escalation in Idlib results in catastrophic levels of civilian displacement and loss of life

A renewed plea has been made for the warring parties of Syria to end hostilities in light of the recent military campaign and bombings carried out in the northwestern, Idlib region. Speaking to the UN Security Council on Thursday 6 February, Geir Pedersen, the UN Special Envoy on Syria said the recent strikes are causing “massive waves of civilian displacement and major loss of civilian life”, resulting in unacceptable human suffering.

While briefing the Security Council, Pedersen outlined the scale of the military operations in the region, which include airstrikes, and a ground offensive in the Idlib de-escalation zone, by the Syrian Government; clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces; and attacks by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terror group and armed opposition groups.

Also briefing the council was Mark Lowcock, UN Humanitarian Affairs chief and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who warned that the recent military escalation was resulting in a “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in Syria.

Lowcock said:

“We have seen chaotic pictures in town after town as vehicles line up in every direction trying to flee. People who have just moved cannot find adequate shelter. Tens of thousands are crammed into schools, mosques and unfinished buildings. Many are in tents in the mud, exposed to wind, rain and freezing weather”

Despite recent UN pleas, the Syrian conflict continues to have a massive humanitarian toll. In the last two months, some 586,000 people have been displaced as they seek to escape bombing and shelling.

Statistics provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights show that 373 civilians have now been killed since December 1, as well as three humanitarian workers from organisations working closely to the UN.

The majority of civilians are fleeing north and west, into areas controlled by non-government groups. However, these enclaves continue to diminish in size and are becoming so severely overcrowded that many are being forced to camp on agricultural land with no infrastructure.

In response, the top official from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced the release of US$30 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). The money will be used to immediately scale up shelter infrastructure and provide other forms of critical assistance to civilians affected by the latest humanitarian catastrophe arising from the Syrian conflict.

The UN has also released a new Humanitarian Readiness and Response Plan for northwest Syria, with a call for an additional $336 million for the next six months to address the massive displacement since 1 December. Lowcock reported that the greatest need is for shelter and protection against the harsh winter conditions: tents, plastic sheeting, stoves, warm clothes, and fuel.

Pederson also warned the Security Council that there is no military solution to the Idlib conflict and that, as things are now, it risks developing into a:

“bloody and protracted last stand on the Turkish border, with grave consequences for civilians.”

He went onto stress that de-escalation could only arise through international cooperation, which would ultimately provide the greatest possibility of bringing about a period of sustained peace and calm.

The Special Envoy said he would continue to impress on the main actors in the conflict their responsibility to take a “different path”, reminding the 15 Council members that they had unanimously agreed on resolution 2245, which stipulated:

“a nationwide ceasefire alongside a cooperative approach to combatting terrorism, and for full respect of Syria’s sovereignty and a credible and inclusive UN-facilitated political process”.

Lowcock echoed the pleas of his colleague, concluding his briefing by calling for an immediate end to hostilities and for a serious international effort to cooperate on Idlib.

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