Hundreds of thousands of civilians are fleeing embattled Syria, and the deepest tragedy at this juncture must be that they have nowhere left to run. After being targeted by barrel bombs and chemical weapons since 2011, the embattled country now bears witness to a renewed bout of misery unleashed by Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers. It is a measure of the calculated severity that this week’s assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held town, is the largest-scale humanitarian catastrophe of a war now in its ninth year.
Indeed, the ninth anniversary of the upheaval in the Arab world could scarcely have been more murderous. The United Nations has warned that 832,000 people, most of them children, have been displaced in less than three months; 100,000 people have fled in the past week. Many had already fled the Syrian regime’s murderous assaults before, in some cases three or four times; the province’s population has swelled from 1 million to 3 million since the war broke out.
They face sub-zero temperatures, and many don’t even have tents in which to seek shelter. According to doctors, children are dying of exposure. And yet President Assad soldiers on as his withers remain unwrung. For all the warnings and recital of data for the edification of the comity of nations, the prevaricating UN has lamentably failed to restore a semblance of normalcy in Syria, let alone a change of regime. Conditions are likely to worsen. As more and more families trudge towards the closed Turkish border, the fighting has claimed the lives of both Turkish and Syrian troops.
This has prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to move in reinforcements. In a word, geostrategy has been sharpened by a concert of rival powers ~ Assad’s Syria, Putin’s Russia and Rouhani/Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran on the one hand and Erdogan’s Turkey at another remove. From Myanmar to Syria, the world powers have been rather indifferent to humanitarian tragedies. The 2018 deal brokered by Ankara and Moscow for a de-escalation zone in Idlib province has been observed in the breach. Not many will concur with Syria’s claims that it was forced to take decisive action because the extremist militia, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an Al Qaida affiliate, seized control of the area last year. Assad has packaged his offensive as a move to confront terrorists.
The tactics are familiar, however. The regime in Damascus has been targeting civilians this week, rather than jihadist warriors. The US indifference is reflected in the query of Robert O’Brien, the National Security Adviser ~ “What are we supposed to do to stop them?” Europe has made it clear that its overriding interest is to ensure that no refugees reach its shores. Even if Damascus halts the offensive, the current plight of those fleeing is neither bearable nor sustainable. The catastrophe is a symptom of the utter failure of diplomacy, and the international community’s abandonment of Syrian civilians.