Syria's war: NGOs suspend aid to embattled Idlib province

Humanitarian groups have ceased operating in Idlib, citing the safety of their employees as violence in the area grows.

    UN-linked aid groups have suspended activities in parts of violence-plagued northwestern Syria, where escalating bombardments by the government and Russia are jeopardising the safety of humanitarian workers.

    "As of May 8, at least 16 humanitarian partners have suspended their operations in areas impacted by conflict," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said on Friday.

    The World Food Programme [WFP] said it has suspended "deliveries to about 47,000 people in towns and villages ... [that] have come under bombardment".

    Speaking from Damascus, Marwa Awad, an officer at WFP, said that more assistance was required.

    "Since 2014, the World Food Programme and the entire UN body have been able to reach the northwest of Syria through our cross-border operations via Turkey," she told Al Jazeera.

    "WFP was able to reach just over half a million people on a routinely and regular basis. However we have had to stop some of our assistance in the southern parts of Idlib due to the fighting." 

    Since late April, government forces have mounted a major bombardment of southern Idlib and neighbouring areas with Russian support. 

    Idlib air raids kill several amid heaviest fighting in months

    The uptick in air attacks and shelling in the region dominated by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate has displaced 180,000 people between April 29 and May 9, OCHA said.

    It has also affected 15 health facilities and 16 schools, it added.

    "Some organisations suspended activities as their premises were damaged, destroyed or rendered unsafe by the violence," OCHA said.

    "Others have suspended activities in order to keep their staff and beneficiaries safe, or because the beneficiary population has left," it said.

    OCHA said five humanitarian workers, including two health professionals, have reportedly been killed in air raids and shelling.

    WFP also said that some of its partners inside Idlib have been "displaced due to the violence, while a few others have sustained injuries".

    The World Health Organization (WHO) said that on May 5 alone, three health workers were killed when two major hospitals and another facility were hit.

    Fears of major assault

    The northwest part of Syria controlled by armed fighters is made up of a large part of Idlib province, as well as adjacent parts of the Aleppo and Hama provinces.

    The government appears to be trying to secure a major highway that cuts through the rebel-held enclave. The highway was set to reopen before the end of 2018 following a ceasefire agreement, but it remains closed.

    It had been protected from a massive government offensive by the September deal inked by Damascus ally Russia and opposition backer Turkey.

    The region of some three million people has come under increasing bombardment since Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, which is dominated by fighters from al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, took full control of it at the beginning of the year.

    Western powers are concerned that the Russia-backed Syrian government will launch a full-scale assault.

    On Thursday, the head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, warned that an all-out conflict in the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province "could generate an unimaginable human rights and humanitarian catastrophe".

    The civil war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

    WFP's Awad said it was important to recognise that a lot of people were suffering from Syria's eight-year civil war, not just those living under bombardment.

    "It’s not just the folks living in Idlib who are now under fire but also the 75 percent of Syrians living in areas that have been settled but they are facing a new enemy, that of poverty," she said. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies