The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century.
“There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock told reporters in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest rebel-held zone left in the country. Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: secular rebels, Islamists, Syrian jihadists with ties to Al-Qaeda – and their foreign counterparts. It is home to some three million people – around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.
Lowcock acknowledged that “there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organisations.” But he stressed that “there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.”
“We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,” he said, warning that “civilians are severely at risk”. A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organisations were all doing “very detailed planning” to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province. “We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,” he said.
He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into government-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.
The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale military operation. “It is a very major preoccupation for us,” he said.
US-backed force launches assault on IS in east Syria
US-backed fighters launched a fierce assault Monday against a dwindling pocket of territory held by the Islamic State group in east Syria, a commander and a war monitor told AFP.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, have been closing in for months on the town of Hajin in eastern Deir Ezzor province.
On Monday, they began an offensive for the IS-held town itself. An SDF commander said the assault, relying heavily on artillery and US-led coalition air strikes, had killed at least 15 IS fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the IS death toll was at least 17.
“Our forces today began attacking the last bastions of Daesh in Hajin, with intense artillery and air support,” said the SDF commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity and used the Arabic acronym for IS.
“The clashes will be fierce in Hajin because Daesh has reinforced their positions, but we will take control of it,” the commander told AFP.
The Britain-based Observatory said the SDF had been amassing fighters and equipment and beefing up their positions for weeks ahead of the attack.
“The operation to end Daesh’s presence in this pocket began today, with the heaviest air strikes, artillery fire, and ground attacks in months by the SDF and the coalition,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. He said the SDF had broken into Hajin from its northwestern edge and taken control of part of the area, while opening a humanitarian corridor to allow residents to flee.
IS declared a self-styled “caliphate” in 2014 across swathes of Syria and Iraq, but various separate offensives by the national armies of both countries, Kurdish forces and international backers have seen the jihadists’ territory shrink dramatically.
In Syria, IS controls part of Deir Ezzor as well as some territory in the south.
The SDF, founded in October 2015, has been backed by US-led coalition air strikes, artillery, and special forces advisers.
It ousted IS from swathes of Syria’s north last year, including from their main bastion Raqa.
In Deir Ezzor, the SDF is battling IS on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, that cuts through the province, while Syrian regime troops backed by Russia battle them west of the river.
In July, a coalition official said a few hundred IS fighters remain in the eastern pocket.
In a purported new audio recording released on August 22, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remained defiant. “The caliphate will remain,” he said. “IS is not confined to Hajin.”
On Monday, coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told AFP that IS still held an estimated 1,000 square kilometres (under 400 square miles) in the Euphrates Valley.
“The challenges ahead include a difficult fight and it will not be easy,” said Ryan, adding that IS’s use of mines “will make fighting slower than expected”.
Coalition troops would not take part in any “major ground advance” alongside the SDF, he said, although they did expect that some high-value IS targets could still be present in Hajin.