The Russian army has said the Syrian Army forces had ceased fire “unilaterally” in north western Idlib province, where the UN fears a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
“From 00:00 on 18 May, Syrian armed forces unilaterally ceased fire in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” the Russian military’s centre for reconciliation in Syria said in a statement.
The statement came after Britain, France, the United States and eight other countries at the UN Security Council warned on 10 May of a potential humanitarian catastrophe from an all-out assault in Idlib region, in a statement opposed by Russia.
Western powers are concerned that the Russia-backed Syrian government will launch a full-scale assault, despite a deal reached with Turkey, who back rebel forces, to set up a de-escalation zone in Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said that shelling by the regime’s forces had continued, despite the announcement by the Russian army.
Syria accused Israel of launching a strike against targets outside Damascus on Saturday night, and claimed the country’s air defences intercepted a number of missiles for the second time in 24 hours.
The Syrian government said that its air defences have shot down drones and projectiles fired early Saturday, according to the state-run news agency SANA.
Syria’s Hmeimim airbase, which is operated by Russia, responded to the projectiles which were fired by militant groups inside Israeli-controlled territory. One person was killed and several others were wounded in the attacks close to the south-eastern coastal city of Latakia, it added.
SANA said the base’s aerial defences “targeted luminous objects coming from the occupied territories (Israel), shooting down a number of them.”
A subsequent report described the projectiles as “hostile targets” which were fired “toward the province of Quneitra” near the Golan Heights, parts of which are annexed by Israel.
In July 2018, Syrian aid workers began distributing 50 tonnes of French aid to eastern Ghouta after Russia agreed to facilitate its delivery in what is the first Western humanitarian effort into a government-controlled area during the seven-year civil war.
The aid, including blankets, clothes, tents, and urgent medical supplies, arrived on a Russian plane to Russia’s Hmeimim military base in north-western Syria from France.
In a different context, the head of UN Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), Rosemary DiCarlo, told members, “We have been here before: in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Raqqa” where civilian casualties increased, consequently an all-out offensive was carried out by the Syrian government and its allies.
“If the escalation continues, and the offensive pushes forward, we risk catastrophic humanitarian fallout and threats to international peace and security”, she said, during her meeting with the new Turkish-Russian working group, convened to try and salvage the military buffer-zone deal reached between the two nations last September over Idlib.
The top former United States diplomat said the UN had followed the intensifying violence which has reportedly killed more than 100 civilians, and displaced around 180,000 already displaced civilians, “with great concern.”
She noted the presence of the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which reportedly now holds sway in much of Idlib, saying that “the international community agrees” that its presence “must be addressed. But with three million civilians in close quarters, combatting terrorism cannot be allowed to supersede obligations under international law.”
DiCarlo said the UN-facilitated political track needed to be revitalised, adding that if the council can work together in support of Russia and Turkey’s ceasefire commitment “then we can work toward restoring a nationwide ceasefire and consensus” in line with previous resolutions.
“International cooperation and support of the Geneva process is critical if Special Envoy (Geir) Pedersen is to realise his mandate” she said, adding that “the conflict is Syria is complex but there is a path forward.”
“Let us unite today for the first step – to support an immediate de-escalation of the violence in greater Idlib and work toward a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” she concluded.
Despite repeated warnings from the UN Secretary-General and others, the decision by the Syrian government and allies – which includes the Security Council permanent-member Russia – to intensify a military offensive on Idlib in recent weeks, means that “our worst fears are now coming true,” said Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock.
He reminded council members that “the innocent civilians of course hugely outnumber the men with guns” across Idlib. While many of the 180,000 newly displaced have moved to camps in the past three weeks, “more than 80,000 people have found themselves with nowhere to go, so they are simply parked in open fields or sheltering under trees.”
At least three IDP camps had been attacked with resulting deaths and injuries, with 17 schools damaged and destroyed, and more than 400,000 were unable to sit for important exams. The UN humanitarian response would be completely overwhelmed if a full military incursion takes place, he added.
The escalation in attacks on medical facilities inside the escalation zone, was the biggest cause for concern he said, noting the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 20 attacks on 18 different facilities – or one per day, in the past three weeks.
He ended his briefing with a chilling list of factual responses to some key questions put to his office in recent weeks, by member states, NGOs, doctors, and families affected by fighting in the Idlib zone.