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Risk grows of catastrophic humanitarian fallout in Syria’s Idlib

UN officials have called on the Security Council to unite in support for an immediate de-escalation of fighting in Syria’s north-western Idlib governorate, where at least 180,000 people have been displaced in three weeks and up to 160 people killed. On 20 May, Save the Children reported that at least 38 children had been killed by shelling in Idlib and Hama governorates since 1 April.

Briefing the UN Security Council, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said: “In the last three weeks we have reports that up to 160 people have been killed. At least 180,000 people have been displaced, and millions of people are crammed into an ever smaller area. 180,000 in three weeks.”

Speaking about the conditions these people now face, he said that more than 80,000 people have found themselves with “nowhere to go”, and many more are “simply parked in open fields or sheltering under trees.”

The Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Marta Hurtado stated in a press brief released on 21 May: “The UN Human Rights Office is extremely worried about the military escalation in north-western Syria, despite the announcement of a recent 72-hour ceasefire […]. The situation remains volatile and the possibility of renewed clashes is high, worsening the prospects for some 3 million civilians caught in the crossfire.”

Mr Lowock added that at least three camps for internally displaced people had come under attack and that the humanitarian response is “already stretched” and would be completely overwhelmed if a full military incursion took place. The New York Times reported that the humanitarian situation is deteriorating by the day, with at least 19 hospitals and medical centres disabled by bombing in 20 days and doctors now operating in basements.

Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights, said: “The speed that this situation is disintegrating is extremely troubling. The impact on civilians can only lead to more fatalities if these individuals are not given a safe haven. The UN Security Council has the opportunity to bring pressure on the active players to show restraint before there is more suffering”

The Idlib Province is 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. It 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.

A new report from Human Rights Watch released on 21 May describes how the security services in Syria are arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from anti-government groups. According to the report, the abuse is taking place even when the government has entered into reconciliation agreements with the people involved.

Human Rights Watch has documented 11 cases of arbitrary detention and disappearance in Daraa, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Damascus. The government retook these areas from anti-government groups between February and August 2018. In all cases, the people targeted – former armed and political opposition leaders, media activists, aid workers, defectors, and family members of activists and former anti-government fighters – had signed reconciliation agreements with the government.

“Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation.”

Areas in government-controlled western Aleppo and northern Hama have also been affected by hostilities, resulting in civilian casualties and injuries. On 14 May, rockets hit the densely populated Neirab camp for Palestine refugees in Aleppo, killing at least nine civilians and wounding 11.

More than 65 per cent of schools in Hama have been forced to close, according to Save the Children’s partners in the area. The escalation in violence came during the final exams for the school year, stopping 250,000 students from finishing their exams. They will subsequently lose a full school year.

Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Director, said: “Entire families of up to eight people are loading everything they own on the backs of small pickup trucks, and are driving north, not knowing where they will sleep next. We have seen this happen over and over in eight years of conflict in Syria in which civilians are paying the highest price.”

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