Civilians in Idlib are enduring “unfathomable suffering” as Syrian regime forces and their allies bombard the last remaining areas under rebel control, a UN report has found.
Hundreds of Syrian men, women and children have been killed in ground and air attacks by the regime and its Russian allies.
These have obliterated towns, villages and civilian infrastructure from November last year until this June.
A report from the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry provided detailed accounts of 52 attacks amid the carnage in the last province outside the regime's control.
Hospitals, schools, markets and homes have been destroyed with ground assaults from the Syrian army and its allies often using cluster bombs.
Regime attacks on Maarat Al Numan and Ariha in Idlib, and Atarib and Darat Azza in western Aleppo at the end of 2019 and early this year led to mass displacement with civilians forced to flee “and may amount to the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer, murder and other inhumane acts”.
“We document two incidents in the report where we think it was Russian airplanes that conducted those attacks,” said panel member Hanny Megally.
The report said Russian warplanes were solely implicated in a deadly March 5 strike on a poultry farm near Marat Misrin that sheltered displaced people, and in three strikes that damaged a hospital in the rebel-held town of Ariha on Jan. 29.
Russia denies involvement in the second attack, it said.
The report said civilians faced a vast array of threats, including from rebel groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the dominant umbrella group of opposition militants in Syria.
Other threats include indiscriminate aerial bombardments, arrest, torture, pillaging and dire conditions at the border with Turkey.
"What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians," said Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the commission.
“It is completely abhorrent that, after more than nine years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives.
“Children were shelled at school, parents were shelled at the market, patients were shelled at the hospital and entire families were bombarded even while fleeing."
Hayat Tahrir, a former Al Qaeda affiliate, was accused of pillaging homes when civilians fled.
The group was also found to have tortured and executed dissenting civilians including journalists, and to have shelled heavily populated areas in government-held territory.
“Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights and extremely limited humanitarian assistance,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a member of the inquiry. “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”
Hanny Megally, another member of the inquiry, said that the Covid-19 pandemic was making the situation even worse in Idlib and western Aleppo. As many as a million people are believed to be displaced in Idlib alone.
“Now more than ever, civilians need sustained and unfettered access to humanitarian assistance, which must neither be politicised by member states nor instrumentalised by parties to the conflict,” he said. “Pandemics know no borders; neither should life-saving aid.”
The report said that “a perfect storm” is in the making as Syria faces the coronavirus outbreak.