Syrian NGOs decried on Friday the inaction of the international community amid mounting violence in the last rebel-held stronghold of Idlib, saying it had triggered the biggest wave of displaced people since the war began.
The recent bombardments by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s northwest have killed dozens of civilians and pushed 300,000 people towards Turkey’s border, the NGOs said at a press conference in Istanbul.
“This is the single largest mass displacement in Syria since the beginning of the crisis” in 2011, they said in a statement.
More than two-thirds of those displaced are living without shelter, with border camps already running at double capacity, they said.
“The latest offensive began in March and has amplified since April 26, turning into a daily massacre,” said Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence group.
Idlib is home to nearly three million people – half of whom are internally displaced. Many of those who have fled to the Turkish border area had already been displaced from their homes earlier in the war, sometimes fleeing time after time as the battles moved and front lines shifted.
“The camps have absorbed around 103,000 people. So we have almost 200,000 people with no access to shelter, no access to water, no access to healthcare,” said Mohanned Othman, a representative of the Syrian NGO Alliance working in Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said Friday that almost 950 people had been killed in the latest clashes in Idlib.
Other bodies, such as the United Nations, placed the death toll at about 250. The world governing body has warned that aid agencies have been forced to suspend their work in some areas, where 22 hospitals and clinics had been hit by air raids or shelling since April 28.
‘Massacre’ passing in silence
A September deal signed by Turkey and Russia last year was meant to establish a ceasefire in the region in order to avert a full-out government offensive on the province and adjacent areas held by a former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.
The so-called “demilitarised zone” was also meant to create a buffer to help the Syrian government gain control over what was once a major commercial highway linking the country to neighbouring Turkey and Jordan.
Opening the commercial and passenger routes through Idlib province would reassert the state’s control over an economy fragmented during eight years of conflict.
But the rebels have refused to leave the area, and the deal is on the verge of collapse as Syrian and Russian forces ramp up air raids and rocket fire.
“The entire world is watching the massacre that is taking place and letting it pass in silence. The United Nations hasn’t lifted even its little finger,” Mohammad Zahed Al-Masri of the Alliance of Syrian NGOs, said.
The human rights groups called for immediate action by the UN Security Council to end the escalation and apply pressure for talks.
“The UN is not playing a constructive role in Syria by refusing to name the responsible party in this escalation,” said Saleh.
Bargaining in Idlib
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut
Idlib was where Russia and Turkey were supposed to work together. Today it is where forces loyal to Syria’s main powerbrokers and stakeholders are involved in a proxy war.
Russia is actively supporting the Syrian government’s military campaign, whileTurkey has thrown its weight behind the armed opposition with some reports suggesting they have provided it with sophisticated weaponry.
So far, neither side is winning and they aren’t any closer to reviving a ceasefire they agreed in September.
Idlib is testing the Russian-Turkish relationship whose cooperation extends beyond Syria and has far reaching geopolitical ramifications. That is why neither side wants to rupture this alliance.
Turkey is increasingly reliant on Russia for its energy needs … They have an important economic relationship. And the Kremlin’s expanding influence in the Middle East is a reality.
So it is difficult for Turkey to walk away from an alliance that secures its interests in Syria and gives it a say in its neighboor’s future.
A Russian spokesperson on Friday told reporters that rebels and allied opposition fighters must halt attacks on government-held areas for any ceasefire to hold.
“A ceasefire in Idlib is necessary and it’s also necessary to have terrorists stop shooting at civilian targets as well as some facilities where our troops are located – including in Hmeimim,” a key Russian airbase to the west of Idlib, Dmitry Peskov said.
The Kremlin said it was Turkey’s responsibility to stop rebels in Idlib from launching attacks, as it backs some opposition factions in the province.
A day earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin by telephone, it was important to “apply the ceasefire without delay in order to focus once again on finding a political solution” to the Syrian conflict, and to prevent a refugee influx to Turkey.
The Turkish leader has repeatedly complained to Moscow about a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Syria’s northwest region.
Some of those displaced by the fighting protested on Friday at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey, calling for an end to the raids and for Ankara to open the frontier, something it has refused to do.
Russia has complained of rocket and drone attacks against its main Hmeimim airbase being launched from Idlib, something Peskov described as “a highly dangerous tendency”.
He made no mention of the idea that Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air power, should stop fighting, however, and denied Moscow and Ankara disagreed over Idlib.
The fate of the province has strained relations between Russia and Turkey, which is eager to retain a degree of influence there given its geographical proximity.