A family flees an active conflict neighborhood in eastern Ghouta, Syria, using a cart to carry their belongings. Photo: UNICEF/Amer Al Shami
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The UN human rights chief condemned the upsurge in civilian casualties near the Syrian capital in Eastern Ghouta as well as Idlib, some 323 km (200 miles) north of Damascus in recent escalations of attacks by the regime forces and their allies which has caused at least 85 civilian casualties since December 31.
“The suffering of the people of Syria knows no end. In Eastern Ghouta, where a crippling siege has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, residential areas are being hit day and night by strikes from the ground and from the air, forcing civilians to hide in basements,” said Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) in a statement released Wednesday.
“Armed opposition groups also continue to fire rockets into residential areas in Damascus, causing terror among the population. In Idlib, ground attacks and airstrikes have escalated as a rapidly-moving Government offensive gains momentum, jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” he added.
At least 85 civilian casualties have been reported, including 21 women and 30 children and some 183 injuries since military operations escalated on December 31, according to UN reports.
The UNHCR reported that at least two medical facilities were hit, destroying one and killing one medical worker during the same time frame.
Ongoing ground-based strikes by armed opposition groups have been targeting areas in government controlled Damascus and its outskirts adding to the increased death toll.
“The firing of rockets into populated areas of Damascus in apparent response [to regime attacks] appears to serve no military purpose and creates terror among the civilian population,” Hussein said.
The UN chief also expressed grave concern for an estimated two million people in Idlib, the country’s largest remaining opposition stronghold, where clashes between the Syrian regime along with their allies and the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham alliance of armed opposition groups that controls much of the area.
A UN official told BBC on Wednesday that 100,000 civilians have been displaced from the area since November 1, many who were already previously displaced from Hama (186 km/116 miles northeast of Damascus) and Aleppo (310 km/192 miles northeast of Damascus).
The security situation in Idlib has worsened as the opposition group is taking measures to consolidate its control over the region.
“Compliance with international law requires that parties to a conflict do their utmost to protect civilians. This includes distinguishing at all times between military and civilian objects,” Hussein said, adding that attacking forces are failing to abide by international humanitarian law principals of distinction and concerns have been raised that war crimes are being committed.
Both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib are considered to be “de-escalation areas” brokered in May of last year by the guarantor countries of Turkey, Iran and Russia through the Syrian peace process in an attempt to put an end to violence and improve the humanitarian crisis.
Turkey has been a main backer of the opposition groups and rebels trying to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power while Russia and Iran have been among his main backers. The three countries have teamed up to help mediate a peace settlement for Syria’s conflict.
Turkey has raised concerns that Iran and Russia are not fulfilling their duties as guarantor states in response to the recent attacks.
The UN estimates that some 69 percent of the population in Syria is living in extreme poverty and “millions are in need of protection in addition to food, clean water, shelter and other emergency aid” as a result of the ongoing conflicts.
The Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year, has claimed the lives of 400,000 and caused the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
“I repeat my call for the parties to ensure strict adherence to international law including by ensuring the protection of civilians from the effects of hostilities and to allow unhindered access by humanitarian agencies to provide badly needed aid, in particular to Eastern Ghouta where at least 390,000 civilians have been living under siege for four years,” Hussein said.