Syria regime pummels jihadist-run Idlib as world stays mute

Paris (AFP) –


Bombs rain on children, hospitals are blown to pieces and the stream of those fleeing the bloodshed rises unabated -- after Aleppo and Ghouta, Idlib has become the latest deadly stage in Syria's theatre of war, watched by a largely silent international community.

Rights groups decry that the civil conflict, which erupted in 2011, stopped making frontpage news after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group in March.

"The entire world is watching the massacre unfold and stays silent. The United Nations hasn't raised a finger," Mohammad Zahed Al-Masri of the Alliance of Syrian NGOs said at a recent press conference.

Since the end of April, the Moscow-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad says it has been bombarding jihadist strongholds in and around Idlib -- the last region outside state control apart from Syria's Kurdish-dominated north-east.

The latest violence comes despite a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey in September to create a buffer zone between rebel and regime fighters.

With roughly three million people living in the region -- include tens of thousands of fighters and civilians forced out of territories the government has recaptured from rebels -- there are fears that a push to capture the area risks humanitarian catastrophe.

More than 300 civilians have been killed in Idlib so far, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the UN puts the number of displaced at over 270,000.

At least 23 hospitals have been damaged in bombardments, along with several schools.

Every now and then, a world leader will take to social media to react to the bloodshed with indignation.

"The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!" US President Donald Trump tweeted on June 1.

Similarly, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter in early May to warn that the humanitarian situation in Idlib was turning "critical" and that military options were unacceptable.

"But what's the point of a presidential tweet?" a diplomat who asked not to be named told AFP, deploring that this type of "minimum service" provided by Western powers had no impact on events on the ground.

- Russian support -

In July 2018, after government forces had retaken the other final rebel-held pockets in the country, Assad said: "Now Idlib is our goal."

While the army has kept up its bombing raids, September's deal has so far held off any major regime assault on the strategic province, which is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group made up of former members of Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate.

Russia has insisted its army is targeting "terrorists" in the area and in early May, Moscow blocked a UN Security Council statement criticising Syria's military campaign, accusing it of being "unbalanced".

"The Americans are stuck, they are unable to enter into dialogue with Russia because the Russians keep the door closed," a French diplomatic source told AFP.

Macron, meanwhile, has tried to negotiate with Moscow via representatives from six countries -- without much success.

"We all know that the Russians and Assad have decided that it is necessary (to act)," the French diplomatic source said.

- International 'helplessness' -

Michel Duclos, the former French ambassador to Syria and a special advisor to the think tank Montaigne Institute, said the international community has been consumed by a "feeling of helplessness".

And "in this case you prefer to avert your eyes", he said.

But Duclos added that there had been a gradual waning of indignation over the conflict, which has claimed more than 370,000 lives.

Both France and the US have said they believe Assad's government may have carried out a chemical attack in Idlib in May -- if confirmed this could trigger military reprisals.

A sarin gas attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhun killed 83 people, according to the United Nations, leading US President Donald Trump to order a strike by 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase.

And France joined Britain and the US in launching missile strikes on three suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria in April 2018 after a suspected chemical attack in Douma.

European nations, still grappling with the migration crisis, also fear that an assault on Idlib could trigger a surge of refugees from the region.

"This is an unacceptable threat for the stability of the region and indirectly for our security," French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament in May.