UK presses Russia to answer for Idlib hospital attacks during UN meeting

UK presses Russia to answer for Idlib hospital attacks during UN meeting
British Ambassador Karen Pierce requested assurances from Russia and Syria during a UN Security Council meeting in Washington on Friday.
3 min read
18 May, 2019
Russia was asked to provide assurances during the UN meeting in Washington [Getty]

The UK challenged Russia and Syria to provide assurances to the UN Security Council that attacks on hospitals and schools in northwest Syria will stop.

The council was meeting in an emergency session to discuss the surge of fighting in the Idlib region that has raised alarm of an imminent all-out assault which could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

At least 18 hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged by airstrikes and shelling over recent weeks, several of which were on UN "no target" lists that detail exact locations of the health facilities to the warring sides, the UN aid chief told the council. 

"Russia and Syria are the only countries that fly planes in the area," British Ambassador Karen Pierce told the council. "I think we need answers today."

"If the answer is the Russian and Syrian air forces, I call on both ambassadors here today to give us the assurance that the attacks will stop."

Russia rejected accusations that hospitals and other civilian infrastructure were being targeted and stressed that military operations were aimed at wiping out terrorists.

"We categorically reject accusations of violations of international humanitarian law," Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council.

"Not the Syrian army, or the Syrian air force, or Russia are conducting hostilities against civilians or civilian infrastructure."

"Our goal is the terrorists," he said.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate which is on the UN terror list, controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

More than 180,000 people have been displaced by the latest violence in three weeks, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said, and up to 160 people have been killed.

The region was to have been spared from a major offensive under a de-escalation agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey, which has ties to the rebels.

On Friday, the head of Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate urged rival fighters allied to Turkey to take up arms against regime forces to ease the pressure on the jihadist bastion of Idlib.

HTS chief Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, in a video released on the group's messaging app Telegram, said fighters backed by Turkey "could help us by launching an operation in Aleppo, for example".

"Dispersing the enemy and opening up new fronts is in our interest," he added.

Jolani's call comes days after he urged supporters to "take up weapons" to defend Idlib.

Turkey, a longtime backer of Syria’s rebels, supports various groups in Idlib to differing degrees and has actively sought to unify them. 

Ankara also operates monitoring posts in Idlib, positioned in a horseshoe-shape around the edges of rebel territory, and has troops deployed to the east in Syria dubbed "Euphrates Shield" in 2016 and "Olive Branch" in 2018 to combat Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Islamic State group jihadists.

The war in Syria, now in its ninth year, has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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