The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib could create ‘the worst humanitarian catastrophe’ of this century.
‘There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,’ Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest rebel-held zone left in the country.
Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: secular rebels, Islamists, Syrian jihadists with ties to al-Qaeda — and their foreign counterparts.
It is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.
Lowcock acknowledged that ‘there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organisations.’
But he stressed that ‘there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.’
Moscow accuses US of using white phosphorous in Syria
Russia on Sunday accused the United States of carrying out bombing using white phosphorous in eastern Syria against military targets in civilian areas, which is banned under international law.
‘Two American F-15 planes carried out bombings on September 8 targeting the area of Hajin in the Deir Ezzor region using incendiary phosphorous ammunition,’ Russian general Vladimir Savtchenko said in a statement.
‘These strikes resulted in fierce fires. We are clarifying the information concerning possible deaths and injuries,’ he added.
In Syria, the jihadist Islamic State group still controls a pocket in Deir Ezzor between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border, and also remains in the vast Syrian desert.
An international coalition led by the United States is helping a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces which for months have been conducting an offensive to oust IS.
The Russian army, which has been intervening militarily since 2015 in Syria in support of the forces of its ally president Bashar al-Assad, was accused in March by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of having used incendiary bombs during the regime’s offensive against the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Moscow dismissed the allegation as a ‘shameless lie’.
Use of white phosphorous is banned under the Geneva Convention for use against civilians and against legitimate military targets in areas with a major civilian population.
‘We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,’ he said, warning that ‘civilians are severely at risk’.
A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organisations were all doing ‘very detailed planning’ to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province.
‘We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,’ he said.
He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into government-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.
The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale military operation.
‘It is a very major preoccupation for us,’ he said.
US-backed force launches assault on IS in east Syria
Agence France-Presse . Qamishli
US-backed fighters launched a fierce assault Monday against a dwindling pocket of territory held by the Islamic State group in east Syria, a commander and a war monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, have been closing in for months on the town of Hajin in eastern Deir Ezzor province.
On Monday, they began an offensive for the IS-held town itself.
An SDF commander said the assault, relying heavily on artillery and US-led coalition air strikes, had killed at least 15 IS fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the IS death toll was at least 17.
‘Our forces today began attacking the last bastions of Daesh in Hajin, with intense artillery and air support,’ said the SDF commander.
‘The clashes will be fierce in Hajin because Daesh has reinforced their positions, but we will take control of it,’ the commander said.
The Britain-based Observatory said the SDF had been amassing fighters and equipment and beefing up their positions for weeks ahead of the attack.
‘The operation to end Daesh’s presence in this pocket began today, with the heaviest air strikes, artillery fire, and ground attacks in months by the SDF and the coalition,’ said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said the SDF had broken into Hajin from its northwestern edge and taken control of part of the area, while opening a humanitarian corridor to allow residents to flee.
IS declared a self-styled ‘caliphate’ in 2014 across swathes of Syria and Iraq, but various separate offensives by the national armies of both countries, Kurdish forces and international backers have seen the jihadists’ territory shrink dramatically.
In Syria, IS controls part of Deir Ezzor as well as some territory in the south.
The SDF, founded in October 2015, has been backed by US-led coalition air strikes, artillery, and special forces advisers.
It ousted IS from swathes of Syria’s north last year, including from their main bastion Raqa.
In Deir Ezzor, the SDF is battling IS on the eastern side of the Euphrates River while Syrian regime troops backed by Russia battle them west of the river.
In July, a coalition official said a few hundred IS fighters remain in the eastern pocket.
In a purported new audio recording released on August 22, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remained defiant.
‘The caliphate will remain... and is not confined to Hajin,’ he said.
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