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Syria: UN must not cut vital aid lifeline to Idlib amid Russian and Syrian war crimes - new report

Satellite imagery showing al-Shami hospital in the town of Ariha after three airstrikes on 29 January (inset photographs: civil defence volunteers inspecting buildings hit in the second and third strikes, credit: Enab Baladi) © DigitalGlobe

Detailed investigation into 18 air and ground attacks on hospitals and schools, including with banned cluster munitions

Information from intercepted cockpit communications provides ‘strong evidence’ of Russian involvement

‘A [cluster munition] bomblet exploded close to my feet, blowing the flesh off’ - teacher in Idlib city

‘The UN Security Council must not cut the vital lifeline of cross-border humanitarian aid while thousands of lives hang in the balance’ - Heba Morayef

The UN Security Council must not cut a vital aid lifeline for civilians in Idlib, Amnesty International said today, as a resolution allowing humanitarian assistance to reach the region is set to expire in the coming weeks.

The call came as a new Amnesty report details 18 cases - the majority of which occurred in January and February this year - where Syrian government and/or Russian forces targeted medical facilities and schools in Idlib, western Aleppo and north-western Hama governorates.

Amnesty’s 40-page report - ‘Nowhere is safe for us’: Unlawful attacks and mass displacement in north-west Syria - contains information from flight spotters and intercepted Russian and Syrian flight communications. These recordings from the cockpits of warplanes provide strong evidence of the Russian military’s involvement in at least one unlawful attack that put a hospital out of service.

The incidents documented in the report - based on dozens of interviews and corroborated by numerous witness accounts, videos and photographs, and expert analysis of satellite imagery - show how Syrian and Russian forces have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects.

According to the Idlib Health Directorate, Syrian or Russian attacks damaged or destroyed ten medical facilities in Idlib and Aleppo between last December and February 2020, killing nine medical and other staff. Dozens of other medical facilities had to close altogether. Amnesty has documented attacks resulting in the closure of five hospitals in areas under armed opposition group control.

A doctor who survived one of these attacks - three Russian airstrikes that hit the vicinity of al-Shami hospital in Ariha on 29 January - told Amnesty the strikes flattened at least two residential buildings near the hospital, killing 11 civilians and injuring more than 30 others. He said:

“I felt so helpless. My friend and colleague dying, children and women screaming outside. It took the civil defence two days to remove the bodies from the rubble.” 

Based on corroborating witness statements and other credible information - in particular from flight spotters - Amnesty has concluded that this unlawful attack was carried out by Russian forces.

According to the Syrian NGO the Hurras Network (Syrian Child Protection Network), 28 schools were also hit by air and ground attacks in January and February. On one day alone (25 February), ten schools were targeted, killing nine civilians. Amnesty investigated attacks on six schools in this period, which included the Syrian forces’ use of air-dropped barrel bombs and ground-fired cluster munitions against two schools on 28 January and 25 February respectively. 

One teacher told Amnesty about an attack on a school in Idlib city on 25 February:

“A [cluster munition] bomblet exploded close to my feet, blowing the flesh off … The pain was unbearable. I felt heat as if my feet were burning. Two students were walking in front of me. One died instantly and the other one, miraculously, survived. I am sure it was a cluster munition because I heard several explosions. I know the sound of a cluster munition attack very well.”

Amnesty identified the remnant as a surface-fired, 220mm 9M27K cargo rocket, manufactured in Russia and transferred to the Syrian army. It contains 9N210 or 9N235 cluster munitions - a weapon prohibited under international law.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said:

“Even by the standards of Syria’s calamitous nine-year crisis, the displacement and humanitarian emergency sparked by the latest onslaught on Idlib has been unprecedented. 

“The UN Security Council must not cut the vital lifeline of cross-border humanitarian aid while thousands of lives hang in the balance.

“The latest offensive continued an abhorrent pattern of widespread and systematic attacks aimed at terrorising the civilian population. 

“Meanwhile, Russia has continued to provide invaluable military support - including by directly carrying out unlawful air strikes - despite evidence that it is facilitating the Syrian military’s commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“UN officials have already called Idlib a humanitarian ‘horror story’ - this will only worsen unless the Security Council sees beyond political ploys and sustains the precious lifeline of cross-border humanitarian aid.”

Attacks on hospitals and civilians

Under the laws of armed conflict, hospitals and other medical facilities, health workers and children are accorded civilian status and are also subject to special protections. Additionally, many of the medical facilities targeted during this period were on a “deconfliction” list the UN shared with Russian, Turkish and US-led Coalition forces in Syria to highlight which sites must not be attacked. These are serious violations of international humanitarian law, which requires warring parties to distinguish between military targets and fighters, and civilian objects and civilians, and to direct their attacks only at the former. They are also war crimes and those who order or commit such acts are criminally liable. 

Aid resolution due to expire on 10 July

The latest onslaught on Idlib has forced nearly one million people - more than 80% of whom are women and children - to flee towards the Turkish border. A woman with three children whose family has been displaced twice in the past eight months, told Amnesty:

“My daughter, who’s in first grade, is always afraid … She asked me [after we were displaced]: ‘Why doesn’t God kill us? ... Nowhere is safe for us.’”

Cornered in an ever shrinking space, these civilians continue to suffer intolerable living conditions amid a massively overstretched humanitarian response, meaning timely and sustained aid is urgently needed. In July 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution authorising the delivery of cross-border aid into north-west Syria and other parts of the country held by armed opposition groups, without requiring the Syrian government’s consent. This has been extended several times - though only with extreme difficulty - and in January its scope was reduced. It is due to expire on 10 July. 

Syria and its allies are seeking to end this arrangement and instead require aid to be channelled through Damascus, making it very difficult for the UN and its humanitarian partners to deliver timely and sustained aid. The government has repeatedly sought to restrict aid operations through bureaucratic requirements, and has “blacklisted” and persecuted aid workers associated with opposition-held areas. Armed groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham have also hampered humanitarian organisations from working effectively.

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Nowhere Is Safe For Us