Fight for Idlib likely to bring 'rights violations, humanitarian catastrophe': UN Syria commission

Fight for Idlib likely to bring 'rights violations, humanitarian catastrophe': UN Syria commission
The chief of the UN's Syria commission warned of a possible humanitarian disaster if fighting over Idlib is to continue.
3 min read
10 May, 2019
Almost 100 civilians have been killed by Syrian and Russian aerial attacks [AFP]

A full-scale attack on Syria's Idlib province would likely lead to human rights violations and a humanitarian catastrophe, the head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said on Thursday.

The Syrian regime on Monday launched a ground offensive on the country's last rebel stronghold following weeks of escalating aerial bombardment from the regime and its ally Russia.

The offensive is a "serious escalation" which has results in tens of civilian casualties and the displacement of more than 150,000 people in just one week, Paulo Pinheiro told a news conference according to AP.

The commission has been responsible for gathering evidence of alleged crimes civilians during Syria's nine-year civil war.

Since the beginning of the year, it has been investigating deadly attacks on civilians by the Syrian regime and its allies in northern Hama and Idlib, Pinheiro said.

The aerial campaign has targeted medical facilities, markets, schools and other civilian infrastructure, with at least 12 medical hospitals shelled since the end of April.

The commission is also investigating shelling by armed groups, including the hardline Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has resulted in "scores of deaths and injures".

The UN Security Council will on Friday meet to discuss the escalation of fighting in Idlib.

Activists and human rights organisations have repeatedly warned of an impending humanitarian disaster in the event of a full-scale ground attack on Idlib by the regime and its allies.

The province is largely controlled by HTS and other rebel factions, and is populated by three million civilians, more than half of whom fled to the province from regime attacks in other areas of the country.

With Turkey's border sealed, it is feared that civilians have nowhere to run.

At least 96 civilians have been killed since the escalation of aerial bombardment at the end of April, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

In the same period, at least 72 rebel fighters and 58 regime troops have died, SOHR said.

IS-linked civilians 'in limbo'

Pinheiro also expressed concerns over the tens of thousands of civilians displaced during the Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) campaign to rid Syria of its last Islamic State group-held territory.

Refugee camps in northern Syria have been pushed to the limit, Pinheiro said.

The Al-Hol camp, initially built to host 10,000 displaced people, now has a population of more than 73,000. The vast majority of them are women and children.

Many displaced people are "being held in limbo under dire humanitarian conditions" with marginal access to food and medical care, he said, while they are "treated as security threats".

This has "inevitably" led to "preventable deaths", the commission said in a statement, noted that up to 240 children have reportedly died due to malnutrition or untreated infected wounds.

Pinheiro also criticised the "drastic action" of Western governments who have refused to repatriate citizens "solely because they assume they are families" of IS fighters.

Governments should at the very least "respect basic principles of due process including the right to a hearing and to appeal" before revoking the citizenship of IS-affiliated nationals, he said.

The commission is "particularly alarmed", Pinheiro said, about children who are "vulnerable to being left without a nationality".

Pinheiro noted several thousand suspected IS fighters - including hundreds of foreign fighters from nearly 50 countries - are being "held incommunicado" by the Syrian military.

He urged the Syrian regime to allow those detainees to be visited by "an independent international humanitarian organisation and human rights monitors".