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Northwest Syria’s Humanitarian Catastrophe

Five civilians were killed and 38 others injured in just one of several recent bombings carried out by the Assad regime against residential areas in rebel-held Idlib Governorate throughout December of 2023. 

The Syrian Civil Defense, colloquially known as the White Helmets, reported that two children and one woman were among the civilian fatalities as well as seven children and one woman among the injured. The regime’s missile bombardments have taken an infinite toll on the Najarin Market area, the industrial area, and other civil locations in Idlib City. 

The bombings also targeted residential neighborhoods in the city of Sarmin, in Idlib’s eastern countryside, killing one man and wounding six other civilians–two of whom were children, according to the Syrian Civil Defense. The injured were transported to the Syrian American Medical Society Hospital in Idlib.

Areas in territory held by the Syrian armed opposition are being frequently targeted by artillery and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian armed forces, despite a de-escalation agreement reached between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in 2017–which was reinforced by a memorandum of understanding the following year. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the faction that controls about half of Idlib Governorate and limited adjacent areas in the neighboring governorates of Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama–a region that houses 3 million people, about half of whom are displaced. 

Attacks launched by Syrian regime forces on those same areas also killed fifteen civilians, including eight children, and wounded 57 others last November, according to Civil Defense statistics. Nine civilians were killed on the 25th of November alone, including six children and one woman while another woman was also wounded, in an attack by regime forces on agricultural workers in the Qaqfin village.

The attack was carried out by a pro-regime armed group located in the Khan Al-Sobol village in southern Idlib, targeting workers picking olives with ground-to-ground weapons, according to the Anadolu Agency. The Civil Defense transferred the wounded victim to the nearest medical center and provided her with first aid while also recovering the bodies and handing them over to the victims’ families.  

This October also saw the “Syrian Response Coordinators,” organization issue a report on humanitarian conditions in Northwestern Syria. It recorded a total number of 639 attacks, out of which regime forces carried out 575 and Russian warplanes conducted the others. A total of sixty-seven civilians were killed, among them were thirteen women, twenty-six women, and four humanitarian workers. The organization also stated that 274 civilians were injured, including forty-nine women and eighty-three children, pointing out that regime forces also used internationally prohibited weapons at least nine times. 

Syrian Response Coordinators also stated the attacks targeted more than sixty-four civilian facilities–directly or within the building’s vicinity–including more than fourteen schools, eigh Internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and nineteen medical facilities as well as other service centers. 118,734 people were displaced, 67% of whom were women and children.

The report noted a decrease in military operations compared to the beginning of October, enabling 18,473 displaced civilians to return. A majority of the returnees remain in a state of anticipation of being displaced again in the event of another military escalation. 

Last October also recorded a decline in humanitarian response operations to 47.18% on average across all humanitarian sectors, indicating that the response failed to cover more than 11.18% of the total basic humanitarian needs of displaced people. Internally displaced person (IDP) camps recorded relative stability in response operations, as they mostly depend on stable projects, with the response rate within the various sectors reaching only 58.12% of the total needs. 

The school year started on the first of October, shortly before a military escalation that month targeted dozens of residential areas across Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo. This resulted in the cancellation of classes for a week while seventeen schools and educational facilities were damaged as a result of the bombing–this includes the Directorate of Education building in Idlib City.

These interruptions hinder the distribution of school curriculums, which in turn causes “the destruction of the educational process.” 

Ahmed al-Hassan, Director of the Directorate of Education, said, “There is a [memo] to the supervisors to suspend working hours if there is a situation that requires this in order to preserve the safety of students and staff.” He also noted that there is practical training on safe evacuation methods. 

A third of schools in Syria are no longer usable according to the United Nations, which means that more than half of Syrian children are deprived of education. The Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability issued a report last September documenting the “intentional” targeting of schools during school hours. It presented forty seven official documents, forty of which were from Idlib, explaining the selection of educational facilities as targets for bombing. The writers assert that schools were intentionally bombed while students were present, during breaks, or when students were leaving to maximize the number of people injured or killed. 

Teachers have linked the decline in educational levels among children directly to the bombings, as the interruption makes it difficult for students to concentrate and scatters their thoughts. This compounds the hardships they experience as a result of repeated displacements, constantly moving from one school to another. The UN estimates that 1.6 million people out of 4.6 million residing in Northwestern Syria receive inadequate education services–forty four different organizations work to support this sector, but they only manage to cover 426,000 people in need.

45% of school-age children in Northwestern Syria are not enrolled in schools due to poverty and displacement, in addition to the dangers posed by bombing. Three out of every five children in the northwest are currently in dire need of humanitarian aid. 

While teachers unanimously agreed that online learning services may represent a solution to help students continue their education, they are still unable to make a real difference given the poor living conditions and lack of electronic devices or educational supplies. 

In September 2018, Ankara and Moscow concluded an additional memorandum of understanding to strengthen the so-called ceasefire in Idlib, including de-escalation zones agreed upon between Turkey, Russia, and Iran during the 2017 Astana meetings. However, the Assad regime intensified attacks on rebel-held territory throughout 2019. Moscow and Ankara reached a new ceasefire agreement for Idlib on the 5th of May, 2020, but pro-regime forces violate it time and time again. 

Syrian civilians are paying the price for the ongoing political conflict between Moscow, Damascus, and Ankara. Analysts believe that this is another factor behind the recent escalation as Syrian and Russian forces have also launched attacks in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, which is located near the Turkish-Syrian border. The matter is not limited to the deployment of Turkish forces in northern Syria, as Ankara occupied many areas with the help of mercenaries from the Syrian National Army (SNA) to deport Syrian refugees to those places. 

Turkey has supported the armed opposition since the start of the Syrian Revolution, which has irritated Damascus and has more recently dissatisfied Moscow given Ankara’s failure to expel Turkish-backed militants from the agreed upon buffer zone.

A diplomatic source told Hurriya this makes rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus less likely, while Moscow is now working to increase pressure on Turkey to normalize relations with Syria because this would send a significant message to Europe and NATO.

Kazakhstan hosted the negotiations where representatives from Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran agreed upon a framework for deescalation with the armed opposition known as the “Astana Talks.” The statement issued after the last round of Astana negotiations was, “constructive, [making] progress in preparing the road map for restoring relations between Syria and Turkey was discussed,” according to a statement issued after the talks. 

It is clear that there is a conflict of interests between Turkey and Syria, as Turkey does not want to withdraw from its occupied territories–President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rather wants to create a “safe zone,” within Syrian territory to forcibly resettle the more than 3.6 million refugees currently living in Turkey.

Assad meanwhile wants to regain every inch of Syrian territory. Fighting Hay’at Tahtir al-Sham (HTS), which controls Idlib, will inevitably be part of any rapprochement for Assad and Russia. It is worth noting that the presence of Turkish forces has prevented Damascus and Moscow from using their full military might to regain control of the last opposition stronghold in the country.

These political conflicts and agreements reflect negatively on the humanitarian situation for civilians living in northwestern Syria. The expiration of an agreement to allow cross-border aid through the Al-Rai and Bab al-Salama crossings on the 13th of November mean that residents now face both their most difficult living conditions yet and the Assad regime’s blackmail.

“Humanitarian life-saving needs increased with the beginning of winger, after the devastating earthquake and the absence of necessities of life, in light of the unprecedented escalation of the Assad and Russia in four years and the repercussions of a war that has been ongoing for twelve years,” according to a statement put out by the White Helmets. 

The Syrian people pay the price for the politicization of the humanitarian file every time, as the aid mechanism moved from Russian blackmail in the UN Security Council to Bashar al-Assad’s perfidy. This man has killed and displaced his own people, even used chemical weapons to do so, while destroying the infrastructure and livelihoods of innumerable communities. 

The White Helmets reaffirmed in a joint statement with Syrian aid organizations issued at the end of last August,” on the legality of bringing aid across the border without the need for permission from the Security Council or the Assad regime, and the necessity of working on new mechanisms that guarantee the sustainability of humanitarian operations, as to be based on the interest, dignity, and respect of the affected communities… In a way that ensures the population’s access to this aid without conditions, and long-term planning for humanitarian programs that [prioritize] responding to the needs of affected communities.”

Regarding the border crossings, it was documented that 155 relief trucks have crossed the borders during October from the three border crossings, distributed among 126 trucks at the Bab al-Hawa crossing–a decrease of 87 from the same month in 2022–and 29 trucks from the Bab al-Salama crossing, at a time when no trucks entered through the Al-Rai Crossing.

Following this, UN aid distributors said, “the United Nations World Food Program regrets to announce the end of its general food assistance throughout Syria in January 2024 due to a lack of funding.”

Displaced people in one of the IDP camps in Northwestern Syria expressed their dissatisfaction and concern following the World Food Program’s announcement that they would cut aid across the country.

The WFP statement also added that the program will continue to “support affected families during emergencies and natural disasters across the country through smaller, more specific emergency response interventions.” It will also continue to help children under the age of five, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers.

The WFP explained to Agence France-Presse that this decision “is based on funding, which is a problem that the program faces all over the world.”

Last September, the World Food Program warned that 24 million people were at risk of famine as a result of shrinking funding, prompting it to significantly reduce rations in many operations around the world. 

In July the aid was cut off for 45% of its recipients in Syria, according to the WFP. 

The program also noted that its activities are fully expandable, which means that they can be reduced or increased based on the needs and available resources. There is concern among the displaced people in the Atma camp in Idlib in Northwestern Syria. 

The areas under the control of HTS in Idlib are home to three million people, about half of whom are displaced people, distributed among hundreds of overcrowded IDP camps–especially near the Turkish border in northern Idlib. Others have found refuge in abandoned buildings, caves, and even among ancient ruins or rusty buses. 

The camps lack basic necessities, leaving their residents dependant food, medical, and logistical aid provided by international organizations in light of the spread of diseases, increasing and extreme poverty,  as well as significant inflation. The World Food Resolution will have major implications for these IDP camps. 

The response coordinators explained that this reduction is the seventh since the start of the program’s work in Syria and the largest of its kind, while “the World Food Program is meeting with local partners to discuss possible solutions to address the new food crisis resulting from the reductions.”

The program–according to its statement–will maintain support for children in schools and learning centers through the school meals program, as well as agricultural families including in the livelihood support program, and support the recovery of local food systems, such as the rebuilding of irrigation systems and bakeries. 

Yanni Suvanto, both the director of the WPF office and Emergency Coordinator For Northwest Syria Operations, said that there will be a reduction of funding in 2023 amounting to 60%, globally, stressing that the program will be completely stopped in Syria. But he also explained that the WFP will launch other programs in cooperation with local organizations in the region. 

It is noteworthy that the donor conferences allocated more than two billion dollars for the current funding cycle of the program, but it did not obtain more than 30.8% of the total required funding. This large deficit, according to the announcement from the Syria Response Coordinators team, along with the “upcoming aid cuts from the World Food Program or other UN agencies will not be compatible with the assessment of humanitarian needs in the region.”

The decision to cut aid has significantly shocked Syrians living in Northwestern Syria. By asking displaced people in the Atma camp about their views on this decision, Yassin–a fifty-six year old father of three children who lives in a tent that cannot repel cold weather nor shelter his family from rain and snow–told Hurriya, “The aid cut will increase the suffering exponentially in the camp. Some people tell me that if the [aid] stops, we will die of hunger.” 

As for Fatima–a forty-two year old widow and mother of four children, whose husband was martyred in one of the regime’s air raids four years ago, added to Hurriya, “Despite my diabetes and high blood pressure, I work in olive picking and agricultural workshops for long hours and for little money. I don’t know what else we can do.”

Bayan, a twenty-six year old relief worker in the Atma camp, told Hurriya, “The situation has become unbearable. We are on the verge of a real humanitarian catastrophe. I see children digging through trash bins, while their parents are completely helpless. Most children do not go to school and [have] malnutrition.”

 We, as Syrians, call for the international organizations concerned with humanitarian affairs to provide quick solutions in order to avoid a tragedy caused by hunger, poverty, and lack of job opportunities. At a time when food aid has become very little despite the growing need, increasing suffering, and extreme poverty that besieges the lives of many. We must also point out that the huge inflation and insane decline of the Turkish lira’s value has been disastrous for civilians living in Northwestern Syria. 

We are also concerned that reducing humanitarian aid will create an uncontrollable famine zone, and we call for the international bodies to work towards increasing support for civilians in the region. This is especially important in light of the deteriorating economic situation and the inability of thousands of civilians to secure their basic food needs. 


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