Backed by Russia, the Syrian government this week renewed its offensive on Idlib province, the country's last major rebel-held stronghold. Fresh fighting after the collapse of a brief ceasefire is threatening "the lives of millions of civilians", the United Nations has said, warning that the situation risks "coming out of control".
The offensive is in an attempt by the government and its allies to drive out armed opposition groups and gain control over what once was a major commercial highway linking Syria to Turkey and Jordan.
Opening the commercial and passenger routes through Idlib province would reassert the state's control over an economy fragmented during eight years of conflict and now facing United States and European Union sanctions, according to economic experts. The campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins, even though the pro-Assad forces have so far failed to make significant gains on the ground, and have only taken a handful of towns and villages in the northwest region. The Syrian government called an agreement between Turkey and the US regarding a safe zone in northern Syria a "blatant attack" on its sovereignty. Turkish and US officials reached a deal to establish a joint operations centre to coordinate and manage the setting up of a safe zone in northern Syria.
The UN has raised a specific alarm about the risks of an enormous government push in the area because Idlib has for several years served as a reception zone for those escaping advances by forces loyal to Assad elsewhere in Syria. Nearly half of the three million people living there are already displaced from other parts of the war-ravaged country, with more than one million being children.
"A new wave of violence is again threatening the lives of millions of civilians who live in the Idlib area," Najat Rochdi, the senior humanitarian adviser to the UN's Syria envoy, said. "During the lull in the fighting, many civilians had returned to their homes and are currently in areas where heavy attacks have resumed putting them at great risk." The number of people displaced has also jumped at "an alarming rate", Rochdi said, with some 400,000 men, women and children forced to flee, "many of them, multiple times". Rochdi called the collapse of the ceasefire "deeply regrettable", adding that during the brief lull, many of the approximately 400,000 civilians who had amassed near the border with neighbouring Turkey had returned to their homes.
These people don't know where to go," Panos Moumtzis, the UN's humanitarian chief for Syria, said after a meeting in Geneva that included envoys from Russia, which has reportedly hit southern Idlib with air raids this week. "A total panic has resumed again," Moumtzis said. "It is like playing with fire at the moment and we worry about it coming out of control." Contingencies are in place for up to 900,000 displacements but there were no plans for managing an offensive that affected Idlib's entire population, Moumtzis said."What is the plan for the three million people there?" he asked. "That is a question we haven't got an answer for".
Relentless bombardment had caused considerable damage to schools, hospitals, markets, water stations, and other civilian infrastructure.
"Parties to the conflict are legally bound to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law, and perpetrators of any violations of international humanitarian law must be held accountable,"the UN statement said. "Aid has to be provided without discrimination to all those in need, and Member States should take measures to ensure that their nationals are repatriated in accordance with international laws and standards." . https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/fire-push-idlib-threatens-millions-190808181029482.html