“You cannot wage war as if everyone is a terrorist, or else will it be a nightmare”


High-ranking UN officials have spoken of Syria as a “death trap” for civilians, warning that Idlib Province in the northwest of the country — with more than two million people — may be the next target of pro-Assad forces.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Tuesday, during a donors conference:

The country is becoming a trap, in some places a death trap for civilians.

There is an entire population out there that cannot bear its refugees anymore, that is suffering from one of the worse ordeals in modern history.

The UN officials’ comments implicitly undercut the rhetoric of the Assad regime about “reconciliation” and Russia’s proclamation of “de-escalation zones”, following the two-month offensive that overran East Ghouta near Damascus with conventional and chemical attacks. More than 1,700 civilians were killed, thousands wounded, and tens of thousands displaced.

The UN humanitarian chief for Syria, Jan Egeland, said:

More than half of the population in Idlib of 2 million have already been displaced, sometimes multiple times, so there has to be a negotiated end to the conflict in Idlib. You cannot have a war in the midst of the largest cluster of refugee camps and displaced people in the world.

My fear is the Syrian government will say the place is filled with “terrorists” and therefore you can wage war like they did during the sieges in Aleppo and eastern Ghouta … Yes, there are bad guys wearing beards, but there are many more women and children and they deserve protection. You cannot wage war as if everyone is a terrorist, or else will it be a nightmare.

The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, fresh from visits to the Assad regime’s allies Russia and Iran, added: “We hope this would be an occasion for making sure that Idlib does not become new Aleppo, the new eastern Ghouta, because the dimensions are completely different.”

The Violations Documentation Center’s detailed but conservative list of fatalities records almost 115,000 civilians killed by pro-Assad attacks. More than 11 million people, about half of Syria’s population, have been displaced during the seven-year conflict. Neighboring countries have closed the borders to any further movement out of the country.

The UN estimates that more than 400,000 civilians are still besieged, almost all of them by pro-Assad operations. Pro-opposition activists say the total is much higher.

Pro-Assad forces, enabled by Russian airstrikes breaking Moscow’s “de-escalation zone”, moved into southeast Idlib Province during the winter. They halted the offensive in January to redeploy forces to the East Ghouta front.

Russia and the regime have periodically carried out bombing since then, almost the extent of operations may be limited by Turkey’s establishment of observation posts around much of the province.

Grandi said Tuesday:

Idlib is where an area where a lot of fighters have transferred. If fighting moves more decisively to that area, it could be very dangerous for civilians….

I think we are going to lose not only a generation but a population.

And Egeland summarized, “I really thought 2017 would be the last huge war year, but the crisis has continued at the same ferocity into 2018. This has become a tremendous marathon of pain.”

He said that, while commitments from donors had increased in recent weeks, it was still only 23% of the $3.5 billion needed inside Syria, with $5.6 billion needed in neighboring countries.

Fears of Arrest and Torture of Returning Refugees

Fears are growing that refugees returning from Europe are being tortured and arrested.

Some refugees are leaving countries including Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, amid rejection of family reunification applications and problems with integration.

One man, who went back to Syria from Germany to care for his sick mother, went missing shortly after returning to his home in Damascus. Eight months later, the man’s body was found in a street in the Old City of Damascus.

A Damascus-based lawyer who witnesses death certificates said he had received them for three young men who had recently returned home from Europe.

All three — one in Damascus and two in Hama — were arrested less than three months after their return, and died in military prison between two and four months after that. The cause in each case was listed “heart problem”.

Rights organisations have that explanations like “heart attack” and “respiratory issues” are regularly given for Syrian military detainees who die as a result of maltreatment and torture.

Returnees spoke to the Irish Times of arrest, violent interrogation, and confiscation of passports as they are accused of connections with opposition figures in Europe.

Russia’s Military Support for “Private Contractors”

Reuters brings the unsurprising news that Russia’s “private contractors” are part of the Russian military effort in Syria.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has maintained that the mercenaries “are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. However, reporters have seen the contractors returning from Syria into the Molkino airbase in southern Russia, home to the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade.

A duty officer at the 10th Special Forces Brigade gave a convoluted denial:

Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware….You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything….You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?

More than 2,000 Russian “contractors” are with pro-Assad forces on the ground. About 200, from the Wagner Group, were reportedly killed by US airstrikes in eastern Syria in February, during their failed attacks on positions of the American-supprorted, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.