Kareem Shaheen is a journalist, columnist and editor based in Montreal. He is a former Middle East and Turkey correspondent for the Guardian.
The last time I visited Syria’s Idlib, it was April, 2017, two days after a devastating chemical attack had claimed the lives of more than 80 people in a town called Khan Sheikhun. I stood in the local cemetery and said a prayer at the freshly dug graves of a family that had lost nearly 20 of its members in the attack.
Earlier in the day, I visited a member of the family, Abdul Hamid al-Yousef, who had buried his wife and two infant children in the same small plot of land after they had suffocated to death while hiding in the basement of their home. He had been out ferrying the wounded to the local hospital, which was so overwhelmed that they left many of the dead in a shed in the courtyard outside.
The hospital was bombed; so was the shed. Those left for dead under it were effectively killed twice, as if to underscore the apparent worthlessness of their lives.
Lives that still mean nothing today.
Idlib is under attack again today, by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, and his allies in Moscow. Since Dec. 1, the relentless assault has driven half a million people fleeing from their homes to the nearby Turkish border. Half a million desperate human beings, most of them women and children, abandoning their homes. Half a million seeking refuge in the depths of a winter that has chilled both bones and hearts.
How did we end up here? Nine years ago, ordinary citizens rose up against the Assad dynasty, which had ruled Syria since the early 1970s, and they were met with unflinching violence. The cycle of demonstrations and death eventually gave rise to an armed insurrection, with foreign powers vying for influence. Extremist groups flourished in the vacuum. Russia joined the war in 2015 after personal appeals by the recently deceased Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and bombed its way to victory over the ashes. Defeated rebels were given a choice: stay in their homes and face probable imprisonment, torture and a military draft, or seek exile to Idlib, a province straddling neighbouring Turkey and the last refuge of the rebels as Mr. al-Assad reclaimed the country inch by inch.
Half a million Syrians have been killed over the course of the war, although we don’t know how many for sure because the UN stopped counting the lives lost. Half of the prewar population of 20 million has been displaced. Atrocity after atrocity eroded the norms of war as the international community stood silent: the repeated use of sarin gas and chlorine as weapons of war, the nearly 600 separate attacks on hospitals and medical centres overwhelmingly undertaken by Mr. al-Assad and Russia, the reign of terror and destruction of cultural heritage wrought by the Islamic State, the starvation sieges. And then there are the barrel bombs: drums filled with shrapnel and TNT tossed out of the back of helicopters, which are so inaccurate that their use may constitute a de facto war crime.
Idlib is under the control of a group called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was once affiliated with the al-Qaeda terror network and defeated all its rebel rivals over the course of several years, imposing their own dictatorship over civilians who had braved Mr. al-Assad’s bullets to demand freedom. HTS assassinated activists and citizen journalists who condemned their rule. The province is one of the last remaining areas outside of government control.
But Idlib is also home to three million civilians, half of whom are displaced from other parts of Syria, and 1.2 million of whom are children. Some have been forced to flee 10 times because of the war. In January, according to the World Health Organization, around 50 health facilities had to shut down because of bombing or because civilians simply emptied entire towns as they fled. During the last week of January, 6,500 children were fleeing the bombardment every day, according to UNICEF.
People are heading for the Turkish border. But there will be no respite or shelter there; tents are overcrowded and flooding in the rain, and the border is closed, because Turkey already has about four million refugees, the per capita equivalent of Canada taking in about two million Syrians. The scenes out of Idlib – of endless columns of humanity fleeing – are apocalyptic.
And yet, there is not even a vague prospect of the mere veneer of action to help the victims – no attempt at mustering outrage. The UN Security Council is hopelessly deadlocked, wringing its hands as it observes a pattern of savage civilian bombardment and displacement followed by surrender and retribution that has happened all too many times throughout the war. In the world we live in today, these worries seem quaint, as if they belong to another era.
That era ended partly because of Syria, whose terrified refugees tried to flee in every way possible, by land and sea, from the horror back home. The laws of war that have been eroded by the Assad regime’s impunity and international inaction cannot simply be remade.
After the horrors of the Holocaust, the world vowed together: “Never again.” The world’s silence in Idlib, and its failures in Syria more broadly, show that we never truly believed.
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