“Children and anybody with a free spirit have become terrorists in the eyes of the world.” My Syrian friend and I are discussing the current situation in Idlib. We are both exasperated that the world is standing idly by as thousands of innocent people are murdered or made homeless. Idlib, a governorate in North West Syria, is often portrayed as home exclusively to terrorists and violent Islamist extremists. My friend’s reference to “a free spirit” is his description of the people who participated in the Syrian revolution: those who dared to demand a free and peaceful life including the right to participate in democratic elections and to exercise freedom of speech and assembly without fear of being arbitrarily detained, tortured, executed or otherwise disappeared into the Syrian regime’s nightmarish prison system.
When Assad’s regime attacked areas of Syria where the resistance movement was strong, carpet bombing residential areas and dropping chemical weapons and barrel bombs on civilians, many Syrians fled to Idlib – an opposition stronghold – seeking safety. In fact, almost half of the population of Idlib is comprised of people who fled other regions where their lives were in danger. It is true that extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham currently governs Idlib, but to fail to distinguish between the militants in power and civilians who reside in the governorate is to lazily perform a grave injustice to both humanity and the spirit of the Syrian revolution.
to fail to distinguish between the militants in power and civilians who reside in the governorate is to lazily perform a grave injustice
For the residents of Idlib the future is bleak. If Assad’s forces take over the territory, mass slaughter will inevitably ensue, as he seeks to exterminate his opposition and to extinguish the light of rebellion that infused so many Syrians with hope for a brighter, liberated future. However, under the rule of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, residents of Idlib suffer a similar kind of vice-like brutal oppression. Back in January 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had ‘arbitrarily arrested scores of residents under their control in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo governorates’ for peacefully protesting against its violent and coercive method of governance. Those who were arrested were often tortured and sometimes executed.
The Syrian people who participated in the revolution in order to fight for positive, democratic change in their country deserve much more than for the international community to turn their backs on them, yet this is what has happened and is still happening. Astonishingly, despite the danger they face in doing so, the residents of Idlib city exhibit tremendous bravery and continue to struggle for freedom; taking to the streets to publicly denounce both the escalating military bombardments conducted by Assad’s regime and Russia, as well as the policies and practices of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Meanwhile, the international community simply averts its gaze from the inconvenience of a dictator so ruthless that he will murder his own people en masse rather than concede power; from Russia’s refusal to withdraw support for Assad; from the mess created by proxy actors who have armed various groups within the country; from the complexity; and most callously of all, from the ordinary Syrians trapped in a version of hell which is characterized by increasing aerial bombardments, bloody limbs, destroyed homes, dead relatives and displacement.
Assad and Putin are keenly aware of the lack of will on the part of the international community to really get involved and to save lives. Their unashamed disregard for human life has escalated over the past few weeks to such an extent that the catastrophic consequences will last for generations via destruction of entire swathes of the country, families and childhoods ripped apart and mutilated, and collective trauma that will be ever-present. As both Syrian and Russian forces launch what seems to be a final, bloody incursion to gain control of the few remaining pockets of opposition-held territory, time is running out for the people of Idlib.
At the end of November 2019, the Guardian reported that in the space of seven months, through over 11,500 airstrikes, which included the use of 460 cluster bombs and 1280 barrel bombs (both of which are illegal under international law due to the indiscriminate and massive loss of life that they cause), the regime and Russian bombing of opposition-held areas of Syria killed 1,300 people. 304 of these were children killed in north-west Idlib governorate. Both Russia and the Syrian regime have intensified attacks on Idlib since this Guardian report was published.
As both Syrian and Russian forces launch what seems to be a final, bloody incursion to gain control of the few remaining pockets of opposition-held territory, time is running out for the people of Idlib.
During the two weeks preceding 27th December 2019, the UN estimates that more than 250,000 people fled Idlib. Women and children comprise 80% of the displaced. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that in the space of 100 hours at the end of December 2019, while bad weather resulted in a temporary reprieve from the aerial bombardment, 40,000 residents of Saraqib (a city in the east of Idlib governorate) took the opportunity to flee. That breaks down to 400 people leaving Saraqib per hour. This number is in addition to the 400,000 people displaced from Idlib earlier in the year as a result of regime attacks. Those fleeing have nowhere to go, no recourse to shelter or safety, and very little access to healthcare. Since November 2019, Russia has bombed more than eleven hospitals and medical facilities in Idlib, resulting in their complete destruction. Meanwhile, due to hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Idlib being forced to live out in the open, without adequate shelter and sufficient sanitation and healthcare, tens of thousands have died from preventable diseases.
The numbers of dead are enormous and the numbers of displaced are barely comprehensible, yet rather than take decisive, life-saving action, the international community seems to be content to roll over and play dead before Russia, or to parrot the narrative that Idlib is populated by terrorists in a bid to devolve itself of responsibility for intervening to save innocent civilian lives.
On 23rd December 2019, Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, released a harrowing statement loaded with the human consequences of our betrayal of the Syrian people and laced with a hint of defeat. In it, he details how on Friday 20th December, Russia and China, through their UN Security Council seats, blocked permission for cross border aid to be delivered to Idlib from Turkey (the Turkish government has indeed detained aid trucks at the border, refusing to let them through to Idlib despite the massive humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding there). He points to the sixteen White Helmet volunteers who have been killed in Idlib, mostly whilst they were performing rescues, as regime and Russian forces conduct “double tap” airstrikes – a particularly sick strategy which involves dropping a bomb, waiting a short while for people to run to the rescue of those trapped and injured, then dropping a second bomb on the rescuers. After providing multiple examples of deliberate slaughter of civilians by Assad and Russia over recent weeks, Raed makes it crystal clear that those trying to escape the slaughter have nowhere left to run, and that the international community has abandoned Syria.
As Assad and Russia close in on Idlib, and seek to regain regime control of Idlib city, bombardments will increase, more civilian blood will be spilled and the death toll will rise significantly through bombing, ground conflict and displacement. Assad and Russia have made sure that there are no more humanitarian corridors – the citizens of Idlib have nowhere left to go, no means of escape or survival. We must all be clear: this is not a military operation against terrorists, but overwhelmingly a mass slaughter of civilians – civilians who dreamed of freedom, democracy and peace, but who met only cruelty and suffering. As my Syrian friend laments, “we must remember that we are all human” and seek to save lives in Idlib.
What can we do?
- The bombing is unlikely to cease any time soon. The White Helmets save thousands of lives each year in Syria. You can support them here: https://www.whitehelmets.org/en/
- Organize pickets and demonstrations outside of the Russian and Syrian Embassies.
- Boycott Russian products and services.
- Raise awareness and be ready to counteract pro-Assad propaganda and harmful misinformation spouted by pseudo-left-wing lunatics and regime supporters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights updates on a near daily basis: http://www.syriahr.com/en/
- Support charities operating on the ground such as Islamic Relief: https://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/
- Write to your MP demanding they act.
- Get involved with the refugee solidarity and volunteer movements.
- Reach out to groups such as the Syria Campaign asking how you can help: https://thesyriacampaign.org/
Featured image via radioamalfm.com
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