SUN 5 - 7 - 2020
Date: Aug 8, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Three-day cease-fire gave Idlib fragile respite
Andrei Popoviciu & Freya Pratty| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: For three days, Syria’s Idlib province experienced respite from months of airstrikes by Syrian and Russian forces. Shelling continued, however, throughout the conditional cease-fire until the Syrian army declared an end to the truce Monday, citing a breach in terms by rebel factions.

Speaking during the truce, a doctor in Idlib, who asked for his name to be withheld for fear of reprisals, told The Daily Star that “the situation is cautious, there’s no airstrikes in Idlib at the moment but there’s several skirmishes ... there’s still some shelling in areas that are close to the battlefield, such as rural Hama.”

On the last day of the truce, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that one woman died in Hama during a ground fire exchange between rebels and regime forces.

Another doctor, using the pseudonym Kinetic, told The Daily Star that the comparative calm gave doctors in the region the opportunity to work. “People seemed to move more freely, thus the number of patients in the emergency clinics and operations department increased,” he said. “There was more optimism but more work to do.”

But three days weren’t enough for doctors to replenish supplies and account for significant losses, such as of personnel or structural damage to medical facilities.

“All hospitals need supplies, medication and money. We need money the most because we need to buy necessary machines and emergency supplies,” the first doctor said. “The biggest challenge is that we need more doctors, we don’t have enough. The situation is very difficult in Idlib, we need someone to help us,” he said.

“My hospital was bombed and fully destroyed, nothing remained and the building is irrecuperable.”

The situation described by the doctors concurs with the United Nations assessment that Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, following the destruction of medical centers and civilian infrastructure.

Since the Russian-backed offensive on the province began in April, at least 400 civilians have been killed and 440,000 of the region’s 3 million have been uprooted.

Ayman, media manager for Syria’s civil defense, a volunteer organization also known as the White Helmets that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria, described the truce as a delicate period of respite. “The situation was fragile over the past couple of days,” Ayman told The Daily Star, giving only his first name.

“Once the cease-fire was announced, our unexploded bombs teams were deployed to clear as many homes as possible,” he said, explaining that the team’s priority was working to help those who’d left Idlib return to their homes.

At the same time, other White Helmet volunteers ran awareness sessions in camps to educate people about how to return safely, and to inform children in particular about the danger of remnants left behind.

Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, told The Daily Star that the group had lost 15 of its rescue centers since April, along with “several emergency and rescue vehicles and search operation electronics.” The short duration of the truce meant the focus had to be on safe return, rather than replacing these losses.

Fared Alhor, a media activist and photographer based in Idlib’s countryside, also said the main activity during the truce had been the return of displaced people to Idlib.

“Those who left their homes and lived on the Turkish-Syrian border returned home during the truce,” he told The Daily Star. “But when the Assad regime began bombing again, people left their homes again and went back to places in northern Syria that are safer.”

The relative de-escalation brought people out of their homes, Alhor said. “During the truce, the streets and markets were full of people,” he said. “The work of hospitals, health centers and markets in the truce was better than it is now.”

Although Alhor said Idlib experienced a relative calm during the three days, he warned against describing it as a period of total reprieve. “There was no total cease-fire,” he said, “the shelling was only in rockets and artillery,” compared to the normal use of rockets, artillery and warplanes.

The White Helmets, too, expressed skepticism at the cease-fire. The organization had documented the previous truces, Ayman said a day before the last one ended, adding that they were just a way for Russia to claim a de-escalation.

“We weren’t expecting a lot from this truce, or any future truces.” Ayman remained unconvinced that cease-fires would ever offer enough of an answer. “A clear and just political process is the way out of these horrors, not truces,” he said.

The three days came to an end Monday, with the Syrian military blaming rebel groups for violating the deal. “Armed terrorist groups, backed by Turkey, refused to abide by the cease-fire and launched many attacks on civilians in surrounding areas,” Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the military as saying.

Regime airstrikes hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Observatory reported, officially marking the end of the cease-fire.

“The airstrikes started again, the truce stopped now,” the doctor working in Idlib told The Daily Star.

“It hit next to me, I don’t know what to tell you. It feels like everyone has forgotten us, we are forsaken.”

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