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UN Security Council hears of ‘unfolding humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria’s Idlib province

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkey’s border “under horrendous conditions” in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, the UN humanitarian chief said Wednesday.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has “overwhelmed” efforts to provide aid.

He said nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1, when the government offensive began — more than 500,000 of them children.

“Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

Lowock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces.

“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,” he said.

‘Tragic suffering’

UN special envoy Geir Pedersen echoed Secretary-General António Guterres’s expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation “and the tragic suffering of civilians.”

“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,” he said.


This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows an area near Kafaldin in northern Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border on Feb. 5, top, and the same area with a large number of refugee tents for internally displaced people on Feb. 16, bottom. The difference illustrates the rapid expansion of refugees as hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area scramble to escape an offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. (Maxar Technologies via The Associated Press)

Pedersen warned: “The potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.”

He said Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a ceasefire in Idlib, “can and must play a key role in finding a way to de-escalate the situation now,” though meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow in recent days and contacts between the two presidents have not produced results.

“To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,” Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva.

‘Spare no effort’

The United States, United Kingdom, Germany and others stressed that three-way talks with Syria supporters Russia and Iran and opposition backer Turkey, which led to a de-escalation zone in Idlib, aren’t working.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula isn’t working, it’s now time for the UN to step in and “it’s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.”

“We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council, to stop what is happening,” he said. “We must spare no effort.”

Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.

“If you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,” he said.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: “We will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria, which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.”

He defended the Astana process as playing “the key role,” saying that “there’s no other mechanism for a political dialogue.”

Nebenzia supported Pedersen’s efforts to get agreement from Syria’s government and opposition on an agenda so a constitutional committee can start discussing a new charter for the country, which is seen by many as a first step toward elections and formation of a new government.

“What needs to stop is protection of fighters, insurgents,” he said.

Britain’s ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russia and Syria need to stop “indiscriminate and inhumane attacks” in the northwest that are killing and injuring innocent civilians.

During closed consultations after the open meeting, French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said he proposed that the Security Council issue a statement on the escalating situation, but Russia blocked it.

According to council diplomats, the proposed statement called for a cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, but Russia insisted on an additional line that would have allowed the fight against “terrorists” to continue. That was unacceptable to the vast majority of council members, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.

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German foreign minister warns of humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib province

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib if fighting in Syria doesn’t stop, speaking Saturday after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavusoglu during the Munich Security Conference.

Maas urged Russia to place pressure, “on the Assad regime so that these attacks and fighting are stopped.” The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has killed hundreds of civilians, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Many of those who have fled have been forced to sleep outside during the bitterly cold winter, with the weather contributing to at least 10 deaths.

“I hope that the upcoming talks between Russia and Turkey next week will result in progress in these areas so that we are spared another humanitarian catastrophe there,” Maas said. 

Turkey said on Saturday it had fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib region in line with de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, warning it would take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern region. But their fragile co-operation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.


Members of a family fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Hazano in the northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province on Feb.5, on their way northward toward the Turkish border amid an ongoing regime offensive. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib. The Kremlin also said Ankara had failed to neutralize militants there.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian advances in Idlib, and that Ankara had conveyed its position to Moscow during ongoing talks.

“We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor,” Oktay said. “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib. Some of our observation posts have fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime,” he said, referring to Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said later on Saturday that Turkey wants to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy, but will take other steps if necessary.


Syrians fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Batabo in Aleppo province on Feb.5. They were making their way toward the Turkish border. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

He added that a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday to hold talks over Idlib and that he would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later in the day.

Iran, which also supports Assad, said last week it was ready to help Ankara and Damascus resolve their disputes.

Turkey-Russia talks

The escalation of violence in Idlib has also caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery fires by the Russian-supported government forces.

Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx from Idlib. It has poured more than 5,000 troops, several convoys of military vehicles and equipment to the region, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

As the Syrian government continued its offensive, Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara to tackle the dispute. Erdogan has also spoken on the phone twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Turkish troops were killed.

However, there was no sign of an agreement, with both sides accusing the other of failing to meet their responsibilities.

Turkey, a NATO ally with the alliance’s second-biggest army, has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdogan said earlier this week that the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.

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