Just as the UN aid mission to the rebel- and Islamist-held enclave around Idlib province in northern Syria was about to collapse, the movement of aid was reapproved – now in a reduced form.
Diplomatic wrangling on the UN Security Council between Russia and China, which support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Britain, France and the United States, which nominally do not, led to a series of abstentions that gave the process a rushed and incomplete feeling.
Britain’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, called the deal, as eventually passed, a ‘woefully inadequate response’ that did not account for the dire situation those in Idlib and its surrounds are facing.
Up to 3 million civilians live in the Idlib enclave, many of them refugees from other parts of Syria, deported to the province by the victors of local struggles. Despite infrequent ceasefire agreements, they are repeatedly attacked from the air by the Assad regime and its Russian allies.
The regime’s coalition has made attempts to capture significant towns and centres of resistance in Idlib in recent months and has moved forces to face the portion of Aleppo province held by its opponents. An overwhelming offensive is expected and, every time it appears that an attack has begun, tens of thousands of refugees attempt to escape it, heading north towards the Turkish border.
That border is closed and the people in Idlib are without a place to go.
While they await the attack, these people depend on outside aid, given the embargoes placed on moving food and other necessities to Idlib through Syria.
Aid to civil society projects – such as the volunteer rescuers in Syria Civil Defence, commonly known as the White Helmets – has been restricted by international backers as the security of the Assad regime appears increasingly unchallenged.
Those who depend on international aid have had it restricted amid international fear of aiding and supplying jihadist elements. Those fears were not unreasonable but they were unreasonably applied and selectively enforced, depriving many of necessities.
The new UN arrangement decreased the number of available border crossings into Syria and halved the length of the mission, requiring its renewal in six months. Fewer crossings mean more going without and the new deal means that even those straightened circumstances are precarious and time-limited.
Noor Nahas, an open-source researcher, said the situation is ‘basically just another failure of the international community.
‘Combine [it] with the cutting of the already extremely small amount of aid entering Syria and the blocking of aid by Jordan the flow of [internally displaced persons and] refugees from Syria into Turkey, Jordan and other countries; and the devaluation of the currency; plus all sorts of other things – like quickly collapsing environment of Syria. There is a huge collapse of something coming in the near future’, he said.
The shortages and the deprivations come amid continual fighting. A ceasefire was proposed and agreed by Russia and Turkey but continually violated from the moment it was to have gone into effect. Bombings continued in marketplaces and bakeries, with dozens killed.
‘What we’re seeing right now with the violation is just more of the same: A ceasefire on military fronts and continued violation of that ceasefire by the Russian government and Syrian regime’, Nahas said.
Turkey, in its role as the nominal defenders of Idlib, as well as the corridor through which aid to the province passes, negotiates with Russia and the regime and has taken to mounting joint patrols with both to enforce a false sense of compliance and calm.
‘If Turkey actually has some kind of strategy with Idlib, it’s fully in line with Russia’s plans on Idlib or – at least [this is] communicated between them … like pretty much every ceasefire killing just shifts from front line soldiers to civilians’, Nahas said.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, co-director of the Syrian medical NGO Doctors Under Fire, said: ‘Every conceivable war crime has been perpetrated in Syria and condoned, it would appear, by the UN and others. Extensive use of chemical weapons has been hugely successful and [is] now in the armoury of every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist.
‘Constant and direct targeting of hospitals and medical staff [in Idlib] have left one major hospital and few clinics to deal with millions of women and children. My dear friend of many years, Dr Omar, a consultant surgeon in one of the few facilities still operating in Idlib, confirms he and his staff have not been paid for six months and are out of all medicines, including the most basic, like paracetamol’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
‘And now these people are to be starved and allowed to die for want of the most basic medical supplies and help.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.