UN warns of cost of Idlib offensive

UNICEF has warned of the risks posed to children in the northern Syrian province should the regime launch its anticipated assault.
Friday 10/08/2018
Evacuated Syrian boys from Fuaa and Kafraya towns in the Idlib province, look out of a broken bus window during evacuating pro-regime fighters and inhabitants. (AFP)
Evacuated Syrian boys from Fuaa and Kafraya towns in the Idlib province, look out of a broken bus window during evacuating pro-regime fighters and inhabitants. (AFP)

TUNIS - “I can’t describe to you what’s happening here. We don’t have enough water or food and we live in fear,” 12-year-old Rand in Idlib told the UN Children’s Fund before breaking into tears.

UNICEF has warned of the risks posed to children in the northern Syrian province should the regime launch its widely anticipated offensive on the rebel-held territory. An assault upon Idlib is widely expected to begin in earnest in September. Yesterday, the regime began dropping leaflets calling for the province to “reconcile” with the regime.

Idlib, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, has been held by a shifting array of rebel alliances from the early months of the country’s conflict. However, in recent times it has assumed the role of dumping ground, with Russian forces – acting on Damascus’s behalf – offering the final defenders of rebel positions the choice between destruction and relocating with their families to the province.

Protected to some degree by Turkey’s presence within Idlib’s deconfliction zone, they now await the regime’s inevitable advance.

There are no reliable figures on the number of fighters in Idlib. One jihadist within the province, speaking during an interview with Akhbaralaan TV, estimated the number of indigenous fighters at 10,000, adding that there were an unspecified number of foreign combatants. All are currently living under the nominal authority of formerly al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, (HTS).  And denied any further avenue of escape, the jihadist said, they all plan to fight to the last should the regime attack.

Facing them are the combined forces of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, tested during the bloody assaults of Aleppo, Ghouta and Syria’s countless other battles and determined to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad’s vow to reclaim “every inch of Syria.”

Also in the midst are the 1 million or more children who, the UN say, retreated there with the scattering rebels, or travelled to the province among the columns of refugees fleeing the uncertain mercies of the Syrian regime. According to UNICEF, most of these children, some already displaced numerous times, live in overcrowded camps and shelters in rural areas. Food, water and medicine are at a premium.

“Children in Syria told UNICEF they’ve had enough. We urge those fighting, those who have influence over them and those involved in the political process to prioritise children above any other consideration,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The children of Syria cannot and should not endure another wave of violence, nor another fierce battle and certainly not more killing.”

In the meantime, aid agencies continue to prepare for the worst. “This area is screaming for diplomatic solutions,” Chair of the UN’s International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Jan Egeland said. “It is yearning for the best diplomats, the best military negotiators to sit down between each other and come to agreements, knowing that there wouldn’t be another Idlib to be evacuated to.”

Insisting that “this is no tsunami” but rather a “man-made crisis from A to Z”, Egeland called upon the international community to support Syria’s “humanitarian lifeline,” which he said helped some 2 million people every month.

“That lifeline has to be expanded because there will be new people in need,” Egeland said. “There is some fighting happening continuously and finally there has to be protection of civilians, including hospitals and others.”