As the number of civilians fleeing Syrian and Russian bombardments in northwestern Syria approaches the one million mark, the United Nations warned Wednesday that if fighting follows them, the result will be catastrophic.
“The number of new arrivals is growing by the day,” U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said of civilians who are trying to stay ahead of the shifting frontlines. Many are moving from Idlib province towards Turkey’s closed border and camping outside in freezing temperatures.
“If hostilities reach these areas packed with civilians, the human cost will be instant and huge,” he warned.
He told the Security Council that the United Nations has provided all relevant parties to the conflict with new maps showing the locations where there are large numbers of displaced persons.
“It is incumbent on all parties to protect these people,” Lowcock said.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pederson called for an immediate cease-fire in Idlib and for all sides to respect international humanitarian law.
“I urge key international players to continue and intensify their contacts to restore calm. I urge all members of this council to put their weight firmly behind the search for a political way forward,” added Pederson.
Civilians are fleeing an escalation in fighting between the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia and Iran, and Syrian armed opposition groups, some of whom have Turkish support.
The Syrian regime says it is fighting terrorists. Idlib is home to some 3 million people, a very small number of whom are terrorists. But it is one of the last major opposition strongholds in the country and the government seeks to bring it back under its control.
“In no case can efforts to fight terrorism exonerate the parties from their obligations under international humanitarian law,” said Belgium’s Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve. “The protection of civilians is a fundamental obligation for all parties.”
The recent escalation has also led to some of the most dangerous confrontations between Syrian and Turkish troops since the conflict began in 2011, resulting in casualties on both sides.
Turkey’s U.N. envoy said “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian forces were met with immediate retaliation by its forces, and Ankara would continue to defend itself.
“Turkey will hit all targets that pose an immediate threat,” Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu told the council. “We will not withdraw our forces and we will not abandon our observation posts.”
He emphasized that Turkish forces are in Idlib to stabilize the situation and preserve the so-called ‘de-escalation’ zone decided between Turkey and Russia in the 2018 Sochi Agreement.
“Our military presence and reinforcements are fully in line with the Sochi Memorandum of September 2018,” Sinirlioğlu said, noting Ankara is continuing its contacts with Moscow to de-escalate the situation.
The U.S. envoy expressed Washington’s support for Ankara, a NATO ally.
“We unequivocally reject statements by Russian officials in Moscow that falsely blame Turkey for the escalation of violence in northwest Syria, and there is no doubt that the Assad regime and Russia — not Turkey — are responsible for orchestrating and executing this military offensive,” Ambassador Kelly Craft said.
She also questioned whether a cease-fire could be established if it continued to be left to Russia and a format Moscow established with Turkey and Iran, known as the Astana process.
“It was not clear before, it is certainly no longer appropriate to trust the Astana group to end the violence,” Craft said. “The clearest path we see to an immediate end to violence in northwest Syria is for the U.N. to take full charge of a new cease-fire initiative.”
The U.S. ambassador’s call for the secretary-general and his special envoy to take charge of the cease-fire was echoed by several other council members, including Germany.
The secretary-general must “step up to the plate,” said Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, adding “We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council, to stop what is what is happening. We must spare no effort.”
Russia’s ambassador dismissed accusations that Moscow is contributing to the civilian suffering and blamed other actors for protecting fighters and insurgents.
Vassily Nebenzia appeared to also dismiss the severity of the humanitarian crisis.
“Once again, people are trying to hype this up,” the Russian envoy said. “We know these techniques very well.”
He also reiterated that Moscow would not cease its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he said is “conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorists.”