Millions are still at risk in Syria, even after Russia and Turkey's demilitarized zone
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Kumi Naidoo (@kuminaidoo) is secretary general of Amnesty International.
Until a week ago, the Syrian government and its Russian allies seemed set to launch a military assault on the last opposition stronghold in Idlib, and with that unleash inevitable catastrophe on the 2.5 million civilians living there and already struggling through a humanitarian crisis.
Syrian government forces amassed along the edges of the northwestern province that borders with Turkey, carrying out attacks with internationally banned cluster munitions and unguided barrel bombs, which have killed scores of civilians. The intensified fighting displaced nearly 40,000 in the first two weeks of September alone.
Then, suddenly, the countdown slowed.
The announcement by Russia and Turkey that they will create a 15-kilometer demilitarized zone free from opposition- and government-controlled forces has been greeted with relief. But Syria’s seven-year-old conflict is too full of atrocities and fragile deals to allow anybody concerned about the civilian population to relax.
Instead, the announcement should spur the international community to redouble efforts to ensure the parties involved start recognizing that certain things are not contingent on negotiations and deals. This includes protecting civilians, ensuring access to lifesaving aid and meeting other obligations under international humanitarian law that apply at all times.
Specifically, this means stepping up the pressure on Russia and Iran to use their influence with the Syrian government, and also pushing Turkey to use its sway with armed opposition groups to ensure that civilians living inside and outside the demilitarized zone are protected.
It also requires underlining that those planning and carrying out military operations are never relieved of their obligation to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians. Recent Syrian government allegations that armed opposition groups are using civilians as human shields or are planning a chemical weapons attack can never justify unlawful attacks on civilians, regardless of whether there is evidence to confirm this unlawful practice or not.
Nobody can pretend not to know what is at stake. The situation in Idlib today reverberates with tragedies of what has already happened in other parts of Syria.
More than half the people currently in Idlib have already fled siege, starvation and war crimes in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs, Daraa and elsewhere. This was largely a result of so-called reconciliation deals reached between the government and the armed opposition in those territories, which led to the forced displacement of thousands of civilians.
Large numbers of these displaced civilians are living in overcrowded camps in Idlib set up near the border with Turkey, with no proper infrastructure or access to clean water and electricity. Many carry the repeated trauma of being displaced multiple times.
But if it can feel as though we have been here before, Idlib’s situation is also unique.
Idlib is the last major territory in Syria still held by opposition fighters — and was designated a de-escalation zone in 2017 by Iran, Turkey and Russia — so there is nowhere in Syria left to run for civilians who fear retaliation if they seek refuge in government-held areas.
And they have real reasons to fear it. Those seeking to escape previous government assaults on opposition-held areas have faced gross violations. Men and boys been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances. Many displaced people have been confined to camps, without access to United Nations humanitarian aid, as in the case of Eastern Ghouta.
This is why all parties with influence on the ground must guarantee safe passage to all civilians wishing to flee the province in the event of an attack, and why it is also essential that Turkey opens its borders to them. The international community should also provide Turkey with the assistance it would need to receive those fleeing Idlib with dignity.
In the meantime, even if the demilitarized zone is successful at providing protection from ground assaults and aerial bombings for those living within it, there are still civilians in villages and towns beyond it. These areas are about to see an injection of fighters who are not under Turkish protection but who, according to the deal, will be expelled from the buffer zone. The deal allows Turkey-backed fighters to stay if they disarm.
The demilitarized zone would also require deployed Russian and Turkish forces to monitor the implementation of the agreement and make sure they are providing humanitarian organizations with unfettered access to the estimated 2.5 million people in the province who are already in desperate need of food, water and health care.
Idlib may have breathed a sigh of relief when the Sept. 17 deal was announced. However, the province still labors under the consequences of a war that has already killed tens of thousands of civilians and forced millions from their homes, and exemplifies how important it is that this blatant disregard for international humanitarian law finally stops.
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