Syria may return to widespread fighting, UN warns

War far from over as new report highlights deaths, torture, lack of food and water, and air strikes from Russia and Israel

Members of the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham militant group in Syria run an obstacle course as they train for war. AFP
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Syria's simmering 11-year war is at risk of boiling over once again with a return to large-scale combat after several front lines across the country flared up in recent months, the United Nations warned on Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions made homeless since protests against President Bashar Al Assad in 2011 escalated into a civil war that drew in foreign powers and left Syria carved into zones of control.

“Syria cannot afford a return to larger-scale fighting, but that is where it may be heading,” said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, chair of the UN's Syria commission.

Fighting has cooled in recent years after Iran and Russia helped Al Assad recapture 70 per cent of Syrian territory, the United States backed Kurdish fighters that defeated ISIS militants, and Turkey set up a buffer zone near its border.

But the United Nations said fault lines between various areas are starting to heat up.

“We had an idea at some point that the war was completely finished in Syria,” Mr Pinheiro said in Geneva. He added that incidents documented in the report proved this was not the case.

“Grave violations of fundamental human rights and humanitarian law” had increased across the country in the first six months of this year, the 50-page report found.

They included fighting and aerial bombardments in the country's north-east and north-west that left dozens of civilians dead and restricted access to food and water, the report said.

In government-held areas, the commission documented the deaths of former opposition leaders, house raids and continued torture and ill-treatment in detention centres.

Russian air strikes over opposition-held areas had increased even further in the last few months, said commissioner Hanny Megally.

“We are seeing increasing violence,” Mr Megally said.

It also documented more than a dozen Israeli strikes across Syria in the first six months of 2022, including an attack on Damascus International Airport that put the site out of commission for nearly two weeks.

The UN revealed on Wednesday that it had been unable to fly in humanitarian assistance to Syria during that time.

Separately, the United States announced an additional $756 million in humanitarian aid for Syria, which would be distributed across the country to provide food, shelter and other support to needy families.

The UN has said more people are in need in Syria than ever before, as an economic crisis further strains their ability to access basic goods and services.

Updated: September 15, 2022, 11:26 AM