World 'shrugs' as Syria death toll rises and 400,000 are displaced in three months, UN says

Russia's bombing of hospitals, schools and other civilian targets going unanswered

A Syrian walks past damaged cars following a reported air strike on a market in the town of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib on July 26, 2019.  / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
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The world is shrugging its shoulders over Russia's military role in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s unrelenting bombardment of civilian areas to try and regain territory, the UN's human rights chief said on Friday, as the global body said that more than 400,000 people have been displaced by air raids in the country's north-west in just three months.

Michelle Bachelet's outspoken remarks reflect frustration among UN officials at the Security Council's inability to stop air strikes on hospitals, schools and other targets in Idlib province.

More than 100 people have been killed in the north-western area in the past 10 days alone, with the total dead in the past three months estimated at 700.

Russia, as a permanent member of the council, holds the power to veto any steps to counter Al Assad, and appears determined to maintain its backing for the Syrian leader.

Ms Bachelet, a former president of Chile who was a political prisoner during the tenure of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, has held the UN's commissioner for human rights post since August last year.

“This latest relentless campaign of air strikes by the government and its allies has continued to hit medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructure such as markets and bakeries,” she warned.

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions.”

The persistent nature of the bombings make it highly unlikely they are accidental but they have been met with a “collective shrug” by the international community, said the commissioner.

“Air strikes kill and maim significant numbers of civilians several times a week. This is a failure of leadership by the world's most powerful nations," she added.

Idlib was meant to be protected from a regime assault by a September 2018 deal on a buffer zone deal, signed between Russia and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

But the de-escalation effort has fallen into disarray with Turkish military checkpoints also coming under attack on numerous occasions.

Syria's opposition – which has no air power – has said the attacks amount to genocide from the air. The Syrian and Russian air forces have control of the skies. Russia insists that action has been taken in response to rebel breaches of the de-escalation deal.

Idlib and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia are under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an extremist group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Moscow on Monday, however, denied it was responsible for air strikes on a market and residential areas in Maarat al-Numan, a town in southern Idlib, that killed 31 civilians.

The United States, Britain and France, as fellow permanent members of the Security Council, have criticised Russian action in Syria but as long as Moscow sides with the Al Assad regime there appears no prospect of a political breakthrough.

Idlib is home to three million people, up to half of which are displaced from other areas of Syria.

The UN humanitarian affairs agency OCHA said that since the end of April it had documented 39 attacks against health facilities or medical workers in north-western Syria.

At least 50 schools have been damaged by the air strikes and shelling.

Approximately 100 schools in Idlib are now hosting displaced people, OCHA said.

Many are forced to live in the open air because of overcrowding in camps and reception centres, it added.

And in those three months OCHA spokesman David Swanson said more than 400,000 people have been displaced in the region, comprising nearly all of Idlib and parts of neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

On Saturday, further regime air strikes killed 12 civilians in north-west Syria.

On Saturday, two children were among 11 civilians killed in air raids on the Idlib town of Ariha, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The attack wounded 28 others, said the Britain-based monitor.

Two residential buildings in Ariha were hit by raids, in the second such attack on the town this week, said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman.

Regime air strikes killed 10 civilians in Ariha on Wednesday, according to the Observatory.

Bombardment by government forces on other parts of the Idlib region killed another civilian on Saturday and wounded 15 others, the monitor said.