UN officials shocked by massive loss of life in Syria

NEW YORK, Feb 6 (KUNA) The Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Syria on Thursday expressed regret over the further escalation of the conflict in northwest Syria with heavy strikes from both air and ground causing massive waves of civilian displacement and major loss of life.

Briefing a US Security Council session on Syria via videoconference from Geneva, Geir O. Pedersen said, “We are witnessing the humanitarian catastrophe that the Secretary General (Antonio Guterres) has warned of.” Recalling that Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire on January 12, he said that heavy clashes and mutual shelling nevertheless continued in the days that followed.

On 14 January, air strikes by the Syrian Government and their allies resumed. The Syrian forces have since launched a ground offensive in the south eastern parts of the Idlib de escalation zone, establishing control over the town of Maarat al Numan, whose population fled the attacks.

In Idlib city, there are reports of civilians fleeing, and an aerial bombardment in support of the Government’s offensive reportedly continues, he pointed out.

During the same period, he said, the Council designated terrorist group Hayat Tahir al Sham and other armed opposition groups launched several attacks and counter attacks along the same fronts including western Aleppo and al Bab in northern Aleppo.

Noting that reports have also emerged of weaponized drones being launched on Syrian and Russian Federation military installations, resulting in the deaths of Russian military personnel, he said that Turkish and Syrian Government forces have directly clashed inside Syria.

A Turkish observation post near Saraqeb was struck by Syrian Government artillery on February 3, killing seven Turkish soldiers and injuring several others.

Since then, there have also been reports of dozens of Syrian soldiers killed in Turkish strikes, he noted.

Recalling the Secretary General’s warning that those recent developments constitute a “change in the nature of the conflict”, he said that calls for de escalation have not been heeded.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than half a million displaced, as people flee into ever shrinking areas where they hope they will find relative safety.

“We appear to have lost sight of the principle of proportionality,” he said, reminding the parties that attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure including on schools and health care facilities are unacceptable.

All military operations, including those against and by terrorist groups, must respect the requirements of international humanitarian law.

“Idlib is the place that became a refuge for hundreds of thousands of civilians from other parts of Syria who fled violence,” he said, noting that as a result the city’s population has swollen to about 3 million the vast majority of whom are women and children.

As Idlib is also the place where fighters who refused to “settle their status” earlier also sought refuge, it also now houses members of Hayat Tahir al Sham and other Council proscribed terrorist groups, as well as foreign terrorist fighters.

Describing their presence as a major challenge, he nevertheless stressed: “We know from bitter experience that a continued all out military approach will not solve this problem.” Indeed, the current approach creates a real risk of a bloody and protracted “last stand” on the Turkish border, with grave consequences for civilians.

Calling instead for a step by step approach aimed at building confidence among the parties, he emphasized that an agreement to stabilize Syria remains possible.

Idlib is a de escalation area established by an agreement in 2017 and was the subject of a further agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation in September 2018. Such agreements can enable prolonged periods of calm.

Outlining his own mediation efforts including through recent meetings in Moscow and Damascus and with Turkish officials he said there is an urgent need for a ceasefire and immediate, unfettered humanitarian access.

The situation must be contained in order to provide additional time to enable solutions to be found.

Meanwhile, he stressed that the provision of support to any internationally proscribed terrorist groups must be further restricted and any use of force against such groups must be carefully targeted. On his part, Mark Lowcock, the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria’s north west has substantially escalated, with daily reports of shelling and air strikes on dozens of communities.

The impact on civilians has been severe, with 373 civilians killed since December 1 and 49 deaths recorded between February 1 and 5.

Three humanitarian workers from United Nations partner organizations have been killed.

While many of the attacks have been reported close to the frontlines, there has been an escalation in major civilian centres, with one of the most serious incidents in the last two months on January 15, when some 19 civilians are believed to have died during an air strike on the al Hal vegetable market in Idlib.

He said that the vast majority of people continue to move north and west into the ever smaller enclave controlled by non Government groups, which are now “dramatically overcrowded.” The area already hosts large internally displaced populations and there is no unused capacity left in formal camps in Idlib, forcing people to camp on agricultural land with no infrastructure.

Some 144,000 people have moved north out of Idlib into Turkey controlled areas in Afrin, Azaz and Al Bab. The United Nations continues to work with the Russian Federation to try to agree on pauses in the hostilities along pre identified routes to allow those fleeing to reach temporary safety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 53 medical facilities have stopped operations due to the direct impact of fighting or because the doctors themselves need to move to safer places.

Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are unacceptable; they must end. An immediate cessation of hostilities is needed, as is a broader ceasefire the only way to ensure that civilians are protected.

Stressing that the United Nations and broader humanitarian community are doing their utmost to meet the needs of 3 million people in Syria’s north west, with 1,227 aid trucks sent through Bab al Hawa and Bab al Salam border crossings in January, he said nearly 900 trucks carried food assistance for some 1.4 million people, while others carried health supplies.

Source: Kuwait News Agency