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Crisis in Idlib at risk of becoming “the worst humanitarian disaster” of the century

On 30 July, the UN warned that the Syrian province of Idlib is at risk of becoming “the worst humanitarian disaster the world has seen so far this century,” as Russian-backed Syrian government forces continue a campaign against one of the last rebel hold outs. At least 450 civilians have been killed since late April, including more than 100 just in the past two weeks. More than 440,000 have been displaced, many for the fourth or fifth time.

Briefing the UN Security Council, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said: “For more than 90 days now, bombing and shelling by the government of Syria, backed by the Russian Federation, has produced carnage in the so-called de-escalation zone of Idlib.”

The Idlib province is one of the last places held by rebel groups after Syria’s eight-year civil war and home to more than 3 million people. Half of the residents had fled fighting elsewhere in the country. The region has come under heavy attack in the past couple of months 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.

Since 26 April, the Syrian-Russian military alliance has carried out hundreds of attacks regularly across areas in the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates under the control of anti-government groups, killing an estimated 450 civilians. The joint military operation has used internationally banned and other indiscriminate weapons in unlawful attacks on civilians in northwest Syria in recent weeks, according to Human Rights Watch.

“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, in a statement. “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.”

Hospitals, market places, schools and centres for the displaced have been systematically targeted in towns and cities that remain in opposition hands. UN agencies and NGOs say at least two dozen hospitals and medical clinics have been destroyed by airstrikes. Some of those havens had been hit multiple times until treating patients became impossible. In Idlib, hospitals, bakeries, and water stations have been bombed and reduced to rubble making it almost impossible for the locals to maintain any kind of normality in their day-to-day lives.

“These are civilian objects,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a 26 July statement. “It seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident.” She continued: “Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions”.

In addition, more than 65% of schools in the neighbouring region of Hama have been forced to close, according to affiliates that report to the British NGO Save the Children. The escalation in violence came during the final exams for the school year which left 250,000 students out of school and unable to finish their exams. They will subsequently lose a full school year.

In Geneva, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, said the Security Council has not done enough to tackle this crisis. He asked if they would shrug their shoulders or listen to the children of Idlib and do something about it.

“You in this Security Council have ignored all the previous pleas you have heard,” Lowcock said. “You know what is happening and you have done nothing for 90 days as the carnage continues in front of your eyes.”

British ambassador Karen Pierce joined the call of several other council members for an investigation into UN de-conflicted sites.

“It is of the utmost importance to establish clearly the circumstances of the attacks through a transparent and credible investigation,” she said.

Since the start of the war in 2011, over 400,000 people have been killed.

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