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Four months in, civilians remain a target of the government military campaign on northwest Syria

AMMAN- Since the beginning of Russia and the Syrian government’s military campaign on northwest Syria in April 2019, territory control has barely changed. 

2 August 2019

AMMAN- Since the beginning of Russia and the Syrian government’s military campaign on northwest Syria in April 2019, territory control has barely changed. 

Over the past four months, the amount of territory controlled by the opposition groups and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was down by 0.6 percent, to 10.24 percent at the end of June, according to Jusoor Center for Studies, located in Istanbul.

Additionally, the opposition factions had made some gains, namely in the town of Tal al-Maleh and Al-Jabain village, which the government forces and allied militias recaptured on July 29.

Nonetheless, the Syrian government and Russian warplanes attacks, have been almost entirely concentrated on residential neighborhoods and civilian facilities in the region.

In only four weeks of the campaign, more children have been killed in Idlib than were killed in all of 2018, according to Save the Children.

Between June 24 and July 24 “at least 33 children have been killed … compared to 31 children killed during all of 2018,“ a press release by the organization said.

Save the Children has estimated that 90 children have been killed in Idlib since the beginning of the military campaign in April.

The Russian and Syrian governments have justified such wide-ranging attacks by pointing to the presence of the internationally designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. 

Moscow has also accused HTS of being behind the multiple attacks on the Russian “Khmeimim” air force base in the nearby Latakia governorate. 

Regardless of the failure of the Syrian government and its allies to make significant progress on the ground in northwest Syria, the displacement of civilians from the area could be a goal in itself, as it could clear the way for the opening of two crucially important highways; the M4, which links Aleppo and Damascus, and the M5, which links Aleppo and Latakia.
The routes are a vital lifeline for the Syrian government to facilitate land trade, as the country is currently under severe international sanctions and suffering economically.

In furtherance of this goal, the Syrian government has shelled medical facilities, water treatment plants, and schools, causing widespread displacement as civilians escape the shelling and the quickly degrading living conditions. 

The Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) has also been a target of the government and its allies. In addition to the physical targeting of the organization, Russia has long been waging a media campaign against it, claiming it is a western-backed group affiliate of al-Qaeda.  

As a result, aside from those killed, more than 715,388 people have been displaced from northern Hama countryside and Idlib Southern villages, from February 2 to July 29, 2019, according to the Response Coordinators, a local documentation group.

The following infographic illustrates the civilian toll from the Russian and Syrian military campaign in northwest Syria, based on information obtained by Syria Direct from the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Fadel Abdul Ghani.

Medical facilities: Targeted with exact coordinates

The recent escalation in northwest Syria has completely halted medical services in the countryside of Hama, in addition to the deaths of three paramedics, according to the media officer at the Free Health Directorate, Ibrahim al-Shamali.

As a result, the residents of the northern Hama countryside, “especially women and children, have been forced to travel long distances to get treatment and some basic medicine,” he added.

“The closest maternity hospital is more than 75 kilometers from the northern Hama countryside.”

Emad Zahran, the head of the media department at Idlib’s Health Directorate, told Syria Direct that in the Idlib and Hama countryside, “32 medical facilities and more than 40 small hospitals have suspended services due to the poor security situation, in addition to the deaths of four medical staff.”

The Russian and Syrian forces attacks on medical facilities, appear intentional, as the coordinates of some of these facilities had been previously shared with Russia as part of a “deconfliction list” compiled by the UN’s humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) to prevent attacks by the Russian and Syrian government warplanes on hospitals, Mohammad Katoob, the assistant director of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), told Syria Direct last month. 

Such targeted shelling has led many to suspect that the program might be endangering hospitals, rather than protecting them from shelling. Such shelling prompted the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Fadel Abdul Ghani, to ask OCHA to reveal which hospitals’ information was shared with Russia.

“Where is their transparency and objectivity? This is a large flaw, in my opinion. We as a documentation network have to know how many hospitals gave the [UN] their information and were included in the deconfliction mechanism so that we can access the information and build our report on the numbers mentioned in the information. We can then specify the number of hospitals [affected],” Abdul Ghani said.

The White Helmets: Work is becoming next to impossible 

In addition to the targeting of hospitals and medical facilities, The Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) centers in the southern countryside of Idlib and northern Hama have been shelled repeatedly. 

The shelling has led to “three centers [suspending] services during the [military] campaign, the martyring of six volunteers, and the injuring of 18 others” in the northern countryside of Hama, the head of the Syrian Civil Defence in Idlib, Mustafa Haj Youssef, told Syria Direct

“As the Russian and Government forces are indifferent towards the lives of civilians and humanitarian aid workers, the work of the White Helmets is becoming close to impossible.” 

“We, however, insist on continuing [our work] because we are committed to the civilians and that is our duty,” Haj Youssef added. 

“Though, we don’t know how long we will be able to continue to [serve] the area as the targeted region expands and attacks [continue to be] focused on populated areas.”

“[There is also] the targeting of essential centers and roads that are used by civilians to flee, as well as those used by the [volunteers] of the Syrian Civil Defence to provide emergency medical services, as well as search and rescue [operations],” he said. 

Thousands of students unable to go to school

According to Jamal al-Shahood, an advisor at the Department of Education that is part of HTS-affiliated Salvation Government in Idlib, the ongoing attacks on northwest Syria have led to “the prevention of more than 90 thousand students from taking their exams.” 

Consequently, the Department of Education has been forced to “transfer students to safer areas and to enroll them in centers in northern Idlib, as well as to set up additional centers for them.” 

There are approximately 200 thousand students whose studies have been either completely or partially interrupted in Idlib. About 90 schools have been targeted since February 2019, among which 75 “are completely out of service,” in addition to nine school staff members being killed, 43 injured and 156 students killed, according to al-Shahood. 

The biggest problem that the Salvation Government has, is the rebuilding of educational facilities. “Renovation or building [can] not take place; the security situation is unstable. The cost of reconstruction is also high, and we are unable to cover the cost currently,” he said. 

Six teachers and 26 elementary school students were reported killed in the northern Hama countryside since April 2019, according to Ma’an al-Ahmad, a media officer at Hama’s Directorate of Education. 

“There is a large amount of suffering in the educational sector in the countryside of Hama,” he said. “The number of students going without education due to the latest campaign is estimated to be around 27,000, while the total number of students whose studies have been interrupted since the beginning of the campaign is 50,000.” 

“The countryside of Hama [has become] barren and empty of people. Most of the students and residents have become IDPs in camps in the north [by the Turkish border] under olive trees … The residents have not settled down [in one place], so students have not settled down either,” al-Ahmad said. 

Lack of potable water in southern Idlib

After the targeting of eight water treatment facilities in Maarat al-Numan in southern Idlib, UNICEF warned that 250 thousand people in the area could lose access to water.

According to Bilal Hamaidani, an officer at the Department of Statistics in the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Local Administration, “it has become impossible for the Public Administration for Drinking Water to ensure potable water to the southern areas of Idlib governorate as a result of the shelling, which has stopped 34 water stations from functioning.”

“Those water stations were serving 183 residential areas and providing water for up to 688 thousand people.” 

“75 percent of the water infrastructure and more than 50 percent of the cities, villages, and towns have been damaged as a result of the targeting of residential neighborhoods,” he added. “An employee was martyred and two were injured. More than two hundred employees fled to safer areas.” 

He confirmed that currently the Public Administration for Drinking Water “is working to raise the pumping rate by 20% in those areas that residents have fled to in the northern countryside of the Idlib governorate to cover the higher demand [there].”

The damage from shelling has also severely affected roads and transportation infrastructure in the governorate. The scale of the damage is “close to 100 kilometers, mainly concentrated in the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya and Khan Sheykhoon,” Hamaidani said. 

Also, “the damage to the service roads which connect the outlying cities and villages stretches over an area more than 50 kilometers, in addition to the damage to bridges and roads.”
“Now, most of the damage is concentrated on the southern region, Saraqib, and the road to Jisr al-Shughoor,” Hamaidani said.

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