Syrian Civil Defense Director: ‘We need a no-fly zone’

Following the fall of Idlib city to a coalition of rebel forces in late March, the city has witnessed a marked increase in the pace of regime barrel bombings.

After a visit to Idlib two weeks ago, Carol Malouf, a Lebanese reporter working for the Sham News Network said, “The planes do not stop, they constantly circle above Idlib. We lived in fear during our seven days there.”

The bombings not only endanger ordinary civilians, but have also exposed emergency responders themselves to tremendous risks in the course of their work, Ra’ed al-Saleh, the director of the Syrian Civil Defense, tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

“It is a humanitarian disaster,” he said. “Members of the civil defense have been hit with rocket attacks during evacuation operations.”

Al-Saleh, who was previously an activist and the director of a humanitarian aid office in Idlib, called on UN to take action against the barrel bombs in a Washington Post editorial last month.

The solution, al-Saleh says, is a no-fly zone “to stop the bombing of civilians and the use of forbidden weapons and to prevent the world from being complicit in the crime.”

Q: What is happening in Idlib city since the opposition gained control of the city?

The citizens of Idlib have suffered from the increase in random bombings, in which the regime uses light and heavy weaponry, in addition to its air power. The regime is waging a war against isolated civilians and the daily bombing targets the city’s infrastructure, in addition to clinics and government offices. There isn’t any water or electricity or communication except in a few areas and death is everywhere.

 The aftermath of regime bombing in Idlib city last week. Photo courtesy of Majd Khalaf

Q: How many people fled Idlib city because of the fighting?

There isn’t an agreed-upon number of displaced. From a civilian standpoint, there has been coordination among a number of organizations to evacuate civilians from Idlib governorate. This coordination extends to ensuring the safety of the roads, enabling the six civilian defense teams to move freely.

Three of the teams worked on evacuation while the other three worked on housing the evacuees. More than 500 families were successfully evacuated. The following day, an emergency room was formed and placed 12 teams in charge: Four were responsible for evacuation, four for rescue, and four for housing.

The emergency room was able to evacuate 1,500 families and place them in surrounding cities and the countryside around Idlib city, in addition to ensuring that medicine, food, and water reached them.

Q: How has your work impacted you personally?

During one of the rescue operations, and it is just one of the many stories that have begun to run together in my mind, I can still hear the voices and screams of a mother. Her son worked in a store that sold fuel and was targeted with a barrel bomb. Of course, we did what we could to rescue the two people inside but the fire consumed the store. This woman stood, crying and mourning her children who were dying in front of her inside.

She tried a number of times to enter the store and save them, and so we held her back for her safety. We stood in front of the tragedy, unable to say anything. This is a story of the relentless machine of war and the continued suffering it causes.

Q: What will help protect civilians?

We are the civilian defense force, and we have asked the United Nations to move quickly to prevent a collective tragedy in Syria, especially in the face of the use of chlorine gasby the regime. We need a no-fly zone to stop the bombing of civilians and the use of forbidden weapons and to prevent the world from being complicit in the crime.

Q: Why were you not present in Idlib city until the regime forces left?

The regime did not allow us to enter the areas under its control and targeted us in areas not under regime control in order to convince us to stop rescuing civilians.

Q: What are the difficulties that you have faced in different areas, especially in the face of repeated bombings?

Due to repeated bombings we have suffered from an inability to reach the targeted areas and families.

There is no electricity in most areas, which adds to the suffering. Some tools have had to be decommissioned due to a lack of operational materials, and the regime deliberately hindered attempts to use the tools in Idlib prior to opposition control. We also face a particular difficulty in the lack of appropriate clothing that protects against chemical attacks.

Q: Do you ever feel helpless in the face of such catastrophe?

We don’t feel helpless but one of the hardest things is seeing the regime bomb a particular place over and over again. We have had rescue teams experience bombing during search-and-rescue operations. It is a humanitarian crisis; we’ve experienced rocket attacks many times in which members of the civilian defense were struck during evacuation operations. Recently, four civilian defense vehicles were struck during search-and-rescue operations.

Q: What are the most dangerous cases you’ve seen and what were the difficulties in dealing with these cases?

The most dangerous cases follow the regime’s use of chemical weapons and chlorine, which has occurred six times so far. The most recent case was on March 31, following the Idlib governorate’s liberation, in which barrel bombs were dropped on the city center and a sports field at 2pm. There were 27 subsequent cases of suffocation, ranging from light to severe. Civilian defense teams operated ambulances and transported people to medical stations in Binnish and other areas surrounding Idlib city, in addition to dealing with the chemicals.

This is a particular challenge, as we do not have the proper equipment or clothes that such operations require. Our response to chemical attacks differs greatly to that of regular bombing. While we do not have the tents and other equipment necessary for decontamination, we do what we can with the resources we have to rescue the injured.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

James Bowker

James Bowker graduated from Tufts University in 2013 with a double major in Arabic Language & Middle Eastern Studies. He has previously worked with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) study-abroad program and as a remote translator for the Article 25 Right to Health campaign.