Mon, Nov 05, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Millions at risk if Idlib truce fails

The Observer

The head of Syria’s White Helmet volunteers has told Britain’s foreign secretary that the West must do more to protect millions of civilians still in extreme danger and said that reconstruction should not begin without justice or accountability.

Raed al-Saleh said Moscow’s record of broken promises meant he had little confidence in a ceasefire brokered between Russia and Turkey in September.

The agreement halted a planned advance on Idlib, one of the last parts of Syria still outside the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and home to more than 3 million people.

However, similar agreements in other parts of Syria have proved a prelude to siege, brutal bombardment and eventual evacuation, and Saleh said he wanted to remind British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt that Western support was vital to save lives.

“We would emphasize that we cannot rely on the Russians or trust guarantees provided by them, because we have seen how their commitments were fake in previous de-escalation zones in Homs, in Daraa, in eastern Ghouta,” Saleh said before his meeting with Hunt last week. “So we need more commitment from the Western world to protect the Syrian people.”

Western powers, such as Turkey, have strategic, as well as humanitarian, incentives to avoid an all-out assault on Idlib.

Previous offensives have ended with mass evacuations, as opposition supporters retreated to other parts of shrinking territory, but Idlib is the last major stronghold.

If it is attacked or falls, residents will have to surrender to al-Assad’s forces or try to cross the border into Turkey.

“A military offensive means a disaster, and not only for Idlib,” Saleh said. “It will have an impact on neighboring countries, as it would push hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people to march to the border trying to escape.”

Turkey already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians and has closed its border to refugees.

However, a huge surge of desperate civilians fleeing might pose a serious challenge to that closed-door policy; some among the exodus might also try to push onward toward Europe.

Saleh said that a longer-term ceasefire deal might help to reverse the flow of Syrians abroad.

The White Helmets have used the weeks of calm since the September deal to start small-scale reconstruction, clearing rubble to build a park, and restoring power lines.

“We believe there is very important work to be done on stabilization, with the potential to reduce the scale of the refugee crisis, by improving life conditions inside Syria, and maybe inspiring people to return, and paving the way for reconstruction,” Saleh said.

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