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Syria Weekly: Pressure on Turkey, as regime onslaught on Idlib continues Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Pressure on Turkey, as regime onslaught on Idlib continues

Date of publication: 31 May, 2019

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The bloodbath in Idlib continued this week, with pressure on regional player Turkey to accept more refugees and do more to protect civilians trapped in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad's regime and Russia continued to bomb and shell the opposition province of Idlib this week, resulting in thousands of more Syrian civilians being forced to leave their homes. Amid this titanic wave of death and destruction, pressure has increased on Turkey to do more to ease the humanitarian situation.

The humanitarian situation of Idlib remains dire, with hospitals and farmers' fields still targeted by the regime and Russian bombers, while dozens of civilians are being killed each week.

Read also: Blaze kills Syrian mother, six children in overcrowded Idlib refugee camp

On Wednesday alone, 74 airstrikes and 44 barrel bomb raids were carried on towns and villages in the province with 22 civilians killed, along with shelling and missiles, mostly hitting Sarjah, southern Idlib. Later in the week, the town of Maarat al-Numan was targeted, with five civilians killed, including three brothers, according to the White Helmets.

Satellite imagery of Idlib has shown the extent of the devastation with whole towns levelled and crops burned to the ground, in an apparent attempt to make the opposition areas unliveable, with neighbouring Turkey likely to be impacted by the crisis.

Satellite imagery of Idlib has shown the extent of the devastation with whole towns levelled and crops burned to the ground, in an apparent attempt to make the opposition areas unliveable

Over 22 hospitals have been destroyed in four weeks of bombing, with aid coordinators telling The New Arab that coordinates of some of the medical centres targeted in the airstrikes provided by the UN, in a desperate attempt to save them from destruction.

Read also: Syrian regime 'has damaged or destroyed 24 hospitals' in deadly Idlib offensive

Aid groups, such as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), complained to the UN about the targeting of medical facilities by the regime, which included a maternity centre according to The Telegraph. This had to be evacuated before the bombs struck, along with a number of premature babies being treated at the ward.

Medical workers were left angered and frustrated when the UN appeared to gloss over the situation and refused to attribute blame for the bombings, despite the Syrian regime and Russia being the only actors operating above the skies of Idlib.

"In the briefing (the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs) earlier this week, the language was watered down. He talked about attacks on health (facilities) but didn't attribute responsibility," Mohammed Katoub, from SAMS, told the daily.

Instead UN criticism focused on criticising Turkey for refusing to open its borders with Idlib, saying civilians have "nowhere to flee to" although it appears there is little appetite to hold those accused of the massacres responsible for their actions.

Medical workers were left angered and frustrated when the UN appeared to gloss over the situation and refused to attribute blame for the bombings, despite the Syrian regime and Russia being the only actors operating above the skies of Idlib

Humanitarian crisis

Around 250,000 civilians of Idlib's three million population have been displaced in the bombing, with basic services overstretched despite the entry of aid from Turkey on Friday.

The response from the people of Idlib has been to organise a "break the borders" protest with a number activists marching to the Turkish border to pressure Ankara to provide refuge to civilians and highlight the humanitarian situation.

A number of protesters made their way to the heavily-manned border on Friday carrying banners saying "We Need Safety Not Food" in response to aid entering Idlib, yet with Ankara not relenting on allowing civilians to pass.

Syria Weekly: Assad's regime scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground
Read also: Syria Weekly: Assad's regime
scorches agriculture in Idlib after losing ground

Haid Haid, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, clarified the position of the activists, saying they are requesting Ankara let in some refugees and protect civilians trapped in Idlib.

"The Arabic slogan for the march is 'breaking' the border. But the aim is not to illegally cross to Turkey in big numbers, it's to highlight their need for protection and safe haven," Haid said on Twitter.

"The ongoing offensive won't only result in killing hundreds, or even thousands, of civilians. It will also create major waves of refugees going to Turkey and to Europe, despite the risks involved.

"Hopefully, this campaign will trigger a more appropriate response from the international communities and member states to live up to their responsibility and protect civilians in Syria. Even if that is done to keep them locked up in a violent nightmare with no end in sight."

Open borders

Turkey, which hosts well over three million Syrian refugees, has clamped down on border security following pressure from Europe over the continent's so-called migrant crisis and other political issues, with guards opening fire, often fatally, on Syrians attempting to enter the country.

Although the continued slaughter in Idlib by the regime has led to calls on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accept more refugees, Turkish analysts say the onus is on the EU to take new refugees.

Russia is being pressured by Ankara to end its bombing Idlib and for the regime to halt its ground offensive. With little movement on either of these issues, then the situation in Idlib remains grim.

Russia is being pressured by Ankara to end its bombing Idlib and for the regime to halt its ground offensive. With little movement on either of these issues, then the situation in Idlib remains grim

"If the European Union accepts that all of the new refugees will be bussed from the Turkish border to them, then the Turkish border policy may change. Otherwise, Turkey as the biggest host for refugees in the world, by far, isn't capable of welcoming more," Omer Ozkizilcik, from the Directorate of Security Studies at the SETA Foundation in Ankara, told The New Arab.

Turkey is one of the key players in northern Syria, with troops operating over the border and Ankara still a key backer of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Rebels in Idlib reportedly receiving new weaponry to help hold-off a regime advance in Idlib and Hama, including anti-tank missiles, according to monitors.

In a bid to end the onslaught in northern Syria, President Erdogan has spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin to re-establish the shaky demilitarised zone in Idlib and Hama, which has now completely broken down.

"Turkey's negotiation channels with Russia are ongoing. Both sides first agreed upon a 72 hour ceasefire which broke down due to the Russian rejection of withdrawing from recently captured areas in the de-escalation zone," Ozkizilcik added.

"The second ceasefire negotiations failed as well due to Turkey's insistence of a return to the agreed de-escalation zone borders."

Turkey is still operating observation posts in Idlib province's demilitarised zone, one of which was reportedly hit in airstrikes. Drones have also been shot down by Turkish forces in Idlib close to their military bases, although it is not clear what type of UAVs were used or who operated them.

"All 12 Turkish observation points are manned by Turkey, and Turkey has sent new reinforcements and supplies to the points several times since the break out of the clashes," the analyst added.

With no breakthrough in talks with Russia, while Ankara remains strident in keeping the borders closed, millions of Syrians remain trapped in the killing fields of Idlib with no major power willing to provide protection.

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