Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkey’s border “under horrendous conditions” in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said on Wednesday.
Lowcock told the UN Security Council that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib Province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has “overwhelmed” efforts to provide aid.
Nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1 last year, when the government offensive began, more than 500,000 of them children, he said.
“Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer, but in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”
Almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces, Lowcock said.
“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,” he added.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen echoed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation “and the tragic suffering of civilians.”
“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,” Pedersen said. “The potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.”
Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a ceasefire in Idlib, “can and must play a key role in finding a way to de-escalate the situation now,” Pedersen added.
However, meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow, as well as contact between the two presidents, have not produced results.
“To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,” Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva, Switzerland.
The US, the UK, Germany and others have said that three-way talks with Russia and Iran, which are supporting Syria, and Turkey, which is supporting the opposition, are not working, even if it did establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib.
German Ambassador to the UN Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula is not working, it is time for the UN to step in and “it’s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.”
“We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council to stop what is happening,” he said. “We must spare no effort.”
Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.
“If you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,” he said.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia responded: “We will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria, which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.”
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