We must not avert our eyes from the crisis in Idlib

Smoke rises from Al Habeet in Idlib governorat after Syrian and Russian air strikes on the opposition-held Syrian town May 3, 2019. AP
Smoke rises from Al Habeet in Idlib governorat after Syrian and Russian air strikes on the opposition-held Syrian town May 3, 2019. AP

In the past few weeks, the three million civilians trapped in the Syrian province of Idlib have been subjected to a savage bombardment from the skies. Buttressed by his Russian backers, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad claims he is attacking extremists, chiefly Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, who control the enclave. However, this is a more cynical campaign to conquer the final bastion of rebel control – and Mr Al Assad will not rest until it is decimated.

While there are extremist elements operating in Idlib after rebel fighters refused to hand over weapons, most of its population – including one million children – are innocent civilians, already battered by eight years of war. Millions were bussed there from other rebel enclaves and now find themselves in a holding pen. To understand the morally bankrupt Assad regime, consider reports that bombs are falling during iftar as long-suffering residents break their fast.

There are chilling parallels with Aleppo, which suffered a similar fate before it returned to regime control in 2016. In the bloody process, thousands were killed. In Idlib, schools and hospitals are thought to have been deliberately targeted, killing at least 160 and displacing more than 300,000 people, compounding what was already a humanitarian crisis.

Given that the fall of Idlib would effectively seal victory for Mr Al Assad in what has been an eight-year civil war, this campaign was both predictable and preventable. An all-out assault was previously thwarted by a Russia-Turkey-brokered ceasefire, which now appears to be crumbling. This is typical of the Syrian president, who has repeatedly employed a “starve or surrender” policy. And yet, with Russia vetoing any action, the United Nations Security Council has proven itself incapable of alleviating the plight of Idlib’s besieged millions.

There has been a complete failure to protect the young and the helpless, despite empty promises of action from the international community when red lines are crossed. As Ursula Mueller, UN assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said last week: “Is there nothing to be said or done when barrel bombs are indiscriminately dropped in civilian areas?” The answer is clear in Idlib. The world has simply turned to look the other way.

Updated: June 1, 2019 06:03 PM

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