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3 million Syrians await an unknown fate in Idlib as Assad and his allies continue to bomb them

Syrians pass through Cilvegozu border gate to reach their hometown before Eid Al-Fitr in Reyhanli, Hatay on 21 June 2017 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]
Syrians pass through Cilvegozu border gate to reach their hometown in Reyhanli, Hatay on 21 June 2017 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]

New evidence reveals that Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal regime is committing war crimes by deliberately targeting schools and hospitals in the last Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib. More than 20 have been bombed, shelled and destroyed this month alone by Assad and his allies Iran and Russia.

Despite previous promises and assurances by the UN Security Council to protect civilians, it appears that the same kind of war crimes that were carried out in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Raqqa are being repeated in Idlib as Assad’s ruthless army and its allies attempt an all-out offensive in the province.

Harrowing eyewitness accounts and footage given to MEMO by journalists on the ground continue to expose atrocities committed by Syrian forces and the aftermath of the devastating barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas. The footage coincides with a meeting of the UN Security Council which is fully aware that more than three million Syrian civilians are preparing to flee towards the Turkish border.

Which county has the fate of Syria in it's hand? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Which county has the fate of Syria in it’s hand? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

While reporting from Idlib for MEMO earlier this year, I found that the fragile ceasefire brokered by Turkey was barely holding with Russian aircraft circling overhead. Now, though, it seems that it has disintegrated completely as Assad and his allies attempt to claw back the final piece of rebel-held territory.

READ: Regime attacks kill 9 in Syria’s Idlib

Despite the use of chemical weapons, cluster, barrel and an assortment of other types of bombs, as well as missiles and artillery shells, it seems that victory is not being delivered on a plate for Assad, as has been predicted by some defence experts. One of the reasons for this is the coming together of rebel forces who have now formed a loose coalition. This show of unity in the sprawling province, which is about the size of neighbouring Lebanon, has already produced a number of small victories for the rebels.

US journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem, one of the founders of On The Ground News based in the province, discusses the full extent of the power-sharing among rebels in this briefing given to MEMO. Abdul Kareem, who has been targeted many times since he first began covering the conflict, was injured, as he covered the frontline action in Habeet village outside Khan Shaykhoon last week along with other journalists, including colleagues from Sky News.

“I guess when you’re the only black journalist on the ground in rebel-held Syria then I’m an easy target for the Russian drones to spot,” he said. Such gallows humour about his own vulnerability might well become a trademark.

The recent regime and Russian attacks have targeted civilians in Kafranbel, Ma’arat, Hurma, Sheikh Mustafah, Ma’ar, Zaita and Kansafra. “These are all small villages or towns in southern rural Idlib,” explained Abdul Kareem, “containing nothing but civilians and civilian properties.”

OPINION: Has Turkey sold out Idlib to Russia?

Journalists have been targeted by the Assad regime before. Earlier this year, a US court ruled that American journalist Marie Colvin was murdered by the regime during an artillery attack on Homs in 2012. She was not just another random casualty of war. Following an exhaustive inquiry, Judge Amy Jackson ruled that she was targeted deliberately as part of the regime’s policy to target independent journalists, whom it considers to be “enemies of the state”. The court in Washington was told that such violence is ongoing.

While it is unlikely that Colvin’s family will ever benefit from the court’s award of $302 million in punitive damages against Assad, his brother Maher and their associates, the verdict opens the way for the seizure of some or all of an estimated $1 billion in Assad family assets salted away around the world, some of which have already been identified and frozen. The premeditated murder of Colvin should now also form part of the ongoing UN-led criminal investigation of the Syrian President, which seems to have stalled of late.

It’s not just Syrians or journalists who are being targeted by the regime, by the way. Around 350 Westerners are in Idlib helping local civilians rebuild and develop what’s left of their country beyond the grip of the government. Using their professional skills in medicine, education, engineering, science and media, they have networked extensively with Syrians on the ground and charities back home, as well as amongst themselves, to rebuild and open schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and community hubs to help widows and orphans.

READ: US says signs Syria may be using chemical weapons, warns of quick response

Most of these ex-pats — or “foreigners” as the Syrians call them — arrived in the war-torn country more than five years ago “for humanitarian purposes”. Their decision to stay has cost some of them their British citizenship because of the simple but toxic government narrative in Westminster that anyone leaving Britain to go to Syria can only be fighters or Daesh brides.

Bashar Al-Assad'schizophrenia: asking refugees to come back to Syria but at the same time keeps planning chemical attacks - Cartoon [Mohammad Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Bashar Al-Assad’schizophrenia: asking refugees to come back to Syria but at the same time keeps planning chemical attacks – Cartoon [Mohammad Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

I met some of the founders of the Unity Project during my visit to Idlib in February, and was told by one that there are no fighters in the group: “Our only motivation is to help Syrian people rebuild their own country.” Sadly, rather than being applauded for their work, which has convinced many Syrian civilians to remain in their country, some individuals have been punished by the British government, which has revoked their passports. This has not been lost on the Syrian refugees in Idlib; if Western governments think so little of their own citizens, they reason, then what chance do they themselves have of surviving the 21st century’s most devastating civil war to date?

The UN’s head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary Di Carlo, has warned that, “If the escalation continues, and the offensive pushes forward, we risk catastrophic humanitarian fallout and threats to international peace and security.” Earlier this month, Di Carlo gave a cautious welcome to the announcement of a new Turkish-Russian working group, convened to try and salvage the Idlib military buffer-zone deal reached between the two countries last September.

“There is no bigger friend to the Syrian people than Turkey,” Abdul Kareem pointed out, “and no one understands legacy better than President Erdogan. Ordinary Syrian people are turning to him as their last hope but Turkey is being squeezed from all sides. Russian gas heats Turkish homes in the winter months and, while the relationship between Ankara and Washington is not great, Turkey is a NATO ally of the Americans, although it’s not being treated like one. The situation is complex.”

OPINION: The Syrian regime’s slogan ‘Assad or we burn the country’ must not become reality

If Idlib is raised to the ground it will trigger the worst humanitarian disaster of the war so far as the province, with a population of one million before the war, is now home to three million civilians. There is simply nowhere else for them to run unless Turkey, which has already given sanctuary to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, reopens the border.

The brutal reality is that the three million innocents in Idlib have somehow become bargaining chips at the UN Security Council. Their fate lies in the hands of the 15 members of the council whose primary responsibility is supposed to be the maintenance of international peace and security. What are the chances of these self-serving leaders putting aside their egos and power games to come together for the sake of so many civilians? With Russia holding a veto in the Security Council, the odds are not good, but other means can surely be brought to bear on the Assad regime to end its war crimes, including the credible threat of prosecution at the International Criminal Court. As the people in Idlib await their fate, the world has a duty to act to save them. Is that too much to ask?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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