Children roam muddy tracks between tents in Ma’arat al-Nu’man, south of Syria’s Idlib city, on January 1. The area has been subjected to frequent bombardment despite a Turkish-Russian cease-fire agreement. (Faisl Alhamoud)

Idlib Residents: Limited UN Aid Plan Will ‘Finish Us Off’

Russian closure of two out of four aid-crossing points, insistence on six-month rather than year-long program, has war-weary Syrians even more on edge

[Amman] Just two days after the UN Security Council approved a limited measure to authorize cross-border aid into Syria, government militias shelled the demilitarized zone of the countryside in Idlib Province on Monday, violating a cease-fire announced by Russia and Turkey last week.

The continued shelling is causing further displacement for the 4 million civilians in the northwestern province, the last bastion of opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

“There is now a fierce war that is destroying residential areas, and there is the massive forced displacement of people,” Faisl Alhamoud, a 35-year-old child-protection worker in the village of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, told The Media Line. “Many hospitals and mobile clinics in Idlib Province were bombed – often with patients and doctors inside.”

Orient TV, a Syrian opposition channel, reported Sunday that Assad’s artillery had targeted Ma’arat al-Nu’man along with the villages of Maar Shurin and Talmenes, in southern Idlib Province.

According to UN agencies, more than 312,000 people have fled their homes since December 2019, mainly from southern Idlib, moving farther north and away from the hostilities.

The current offensive is depopulating Ma’arat al-Nu’man and its countryside.

“The children are most affected by the ongoing war in Syria, and they suffer the most from the forced displacement when they lose their families and their homes,” Alhamoud said.

During 2019, the group Syria Civil Defense (commonly known as the White Helmets) counted 228 cluster-bomb attacks, 5,070 airstrikes and the dropping of 1,622 barrel bombs in Syria’s beleaguered northwest.

Few here see much relief arriving as a result of Friday’s UN Security Council vote.

Russia has reduced the number of crossing points from four to two, and authorized the program for an additional six months instead of the year sought by the United States, its western European allies and Kuwait, the only Arab state represented on the council.

The vote thus officially ends the aid-delivery program through the al-Ramtha crossing in Jordan, and Al Yarubiyah in Iraq, with convoys now authorized to travel only through the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings from Turkey.

During 2019, over 1.4 million people benefited from essential medical supplies shipped across the Al Yarubiyah crossing, including essential medicines as well as surgical and trauma equipment.

“The non-renewal of the authorization for the use of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing makes it all the more critical that the Syrian authorities, and all parties to the conflict, comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law to allow rapid and unimpeded passage of relief,” David Swanson, spokesman in Amman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Media Line. “This should include consent to use all available routes, including those across borders, to ensure that medical supplies reach people in need throughout Syria.”

The war and limited humanitarian assistance have sorely hurt women’s health. Due to the escalation of violence in December, particularly in southern parts of Idlib, more than 312,000 people were displaced, 80% of whom were women and children, according to UNICEF.

“Many pregnant women find no place to give birth due to the bombing of hospitals,” Ahlam Alrasheed-Ahlam, an Arabic-language teacher and head of the Women Empowerment Center in Idlib, told The Media Line. “They suffer from cold, malnutrition and the absence of shelter, and if they do have a roof over their head, it’s often in large collective housing tents where there is no privacy nor any component of life.”

Alrasheed-Ahlam added that international aid organizations try to provide psychosocial support, shelter and food, but the lack of housing remains chronic because of the constant flow of refugees.

“Even people who have homes are now on the streets because of the incessant bombing, and are very tense and afraid of decisions that do not serve their interests,” she said, adding: “We fear that a major catastrophe is ahead.”

On Sunday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that civilians in Idlib Province could leave a de-escalation zone via three new checkpoints. Still, neither residents nor refugees want to live in territory controlled by Syrian government forces.

“The humanitarian response has yet again been turned into a battleground, and civilians are yet again hardest hit by the political games and siege tactics of Russia and the regime,” Laila Kiki, executive director of The Syria Campaign, told The Media Line by phone from Berlin. “Millions of people reliant on aid in northern Syria are already barely surviving with poor shelter, meager medical supplies and a lack of proper food. To cut the delivery routes in half will have a catastrophic impact.”

Fouad Sayed Issa, a 24-year-old founder of Violet Idlib, a community group that collects food and other necessary supplies for the displaced civilians it houses at 14 shelters in northwestern Syria, told The Media Line that he had never been more afraid for the future.

“For the past five years, aid was automatically renewed every year for a year,” he said. “Now people are asking why Russia is forcing it to be six months only. We wonder if this is simply the time they need to take all the area and finish off the 4 million civilians in this region.”

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