Far from over: the heightening horrors of war in Syria’s northwest

Nearly a million people have fled to the Idlib governorate over the past few months.

Having recently welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees, Canadians might be lulled into thinking conflict in that country is waning. But recent events and reports from Development and Peace — Caritas Canada’s partners indicate that the war is far from over and the worst may yet come.

A deadly endgame?

After nearly a decade of civil war involving multiple belligerents with shifting local and foreign alliances, the Bashar al-Assad regime now controls most of Syria. Anti-government forces, some of whom have Turkish support, tended to retreat to and regroup in the northwest region around Idlib. They are now making a last stand there.

Mounting an increasingly ruthless offensive to regain the geopolitically strategic region, the Russian-backed Syrian army is encountering stiff resistance from its armed opponents.

Caught in the crossfire, millions of civilians are suffering untold hardship. Their already dire situation risks turning into Syria’s worst humanitarian crisis so far.

Fleeing, freezing, starving, suffocating

The latest reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs  (OCHA) paint a grim picture. Since last December, some 300 communities have changed hands from the government to its armed opponents or vice versa. Shelling and air strikes have sent residents of these bitterly fought-over areas fleeing to the northwest. Over 948,000 people, 60 per cent of whom are children, have been displaced in the region, swelling the beleaguered Idlib governorate’s population by a third.

Over the past 10 months, 1,746 civilians, including 338 women and 513 children, were killed in northwest Syria. Lives are also threatened by crumbling infrastructure; inadequate medical facilities that are often shelled and strafed; choked humanitarian supply lines; and food scarcities.

A harsh winter, with nighttime lows of -7 C, is exacerbating matters. OCHA is receiving accounts of children freezing to death and people being asphyxiated by smoke from fires lit for warmth.

As advancing government troops push conflict frontlines into densely populated areas, the long-suffering civilians of northwest Syria are becoming hemmed in by unspeakable violence, with nowhere left to run. Their lot is likely to worsen dramatically in the coming weeks.

An urgent need

Having supported Syrian organizations since the conflict began, Development and Peace is closely monitoring the rapidly deteriorating scenario. Given the recent escalation of hostilities between Turkey and Syria, we are deeply concerned for the safety of displaced persons. Standing between them and certain death is a small, struggling but steadfast band of civil society groups. Since 2012, our partners have been aiding the most vulnerable people by providing meals, rations, hygiene kits, shelter, sanitation and emergency supplies.

For them to work effectively, humanitarian aid convoys must be guaranteed safe passage and relief camps must be respected as safe zones. The international community must pressure the warring parties to provide these assurances and work for de-escalation and political solutions.

The most important shorter-term need is for funds. OCHA estimates that US$500 million will be needed in the next six months. Your generosity can help our partners save lives and bring a measure of dignity to the people of Syria.

* Photos courtesy of the Syrian Association for Relief and Development (SARD)

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