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The facade of Syria’s ‘safe zones’

Amnesty International has said regime strikes amount to collective punishment of civilian populations in rebel-held areas

  • Smoke rises following an air strike on the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin.Image Credit: AFP
  • A wounded child at a makeshift hospital in the Eastern Ghouta town of Kafr Batna.Image Credit: AFP
  • A Syrian man transports into an ambulance the body of a child who was killed following reported shelling by SyImage Credit: AFP
Gulf News

Beirut: A resurgence of deadly attacks by pro-government forces in de-escalation zones in Syria, including a triple air strike on a busy marketplace that killed more than 50 people, is undermining an agreement seen as a crucial step toward ending the 6 1/2-year civil war.

The accord — reached earlier this year between Russia and Iran, which are allied with Syria’s government, and Turkey, which backs some rebel groups — established four de-escalation zones where attacks were supposed to decrease and so help pave the way for a peace settlement.

The de-escalation zones encompass most of the remaining areas of the country still held by insurgent groups, not including Daesh.

This month, after a meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia issued a joint statement affirming the “importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria.”

But days later, on Monday, air strikes hit a marketplace in the rebel-held town of Atarib, which is in a de-escalation zone in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

The marketplace was “completely destroyed,” said Ali Obeid, a witness who broadcast the aftermath on social media. His video and others showed desperation, suffering and bewilderment.

In one, a man paused next to someone he apparently recognised, whose head had been blown off. “God give your soul peace,” the man said. In another scene, a man called for help from the floor of a destroyed shop. He had lost a leg.

The attack came on the same day that Amnesty International issued a report condemning de-escalation zone violations and what it called the collective punishment of civilian populations in rebel-held areas.

Attacks in Atarib and elsewhere “highlight concerns about these so-called safe zones and whether they are really ever safe,” Rawya Rageh, a senior adviser to Amnesty who was a co-writer of the report, said in an email. “Time and again, civilians in Syria are finding no safe place to take refuge.”

With the world’s attention focused on other issues in the Middle East, like the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran that have sparked a political crisis in Lebanon, there has been little official outcry about violations of the de-escalation zones, where many armed and unarmed opponents of President Bashar Al Assad are concentrated.

International leaders consider the de-escalation zones a building block as preparations are being made for a new round of UN-backed peace talks in Geneva this month between the Syrian government and the main opposition coalition, and for separate Russian-backed talks between Syrian factions in the Russian town of Sochi.

Countries that are hosting millions of Syrian refugees, including Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, have cited those talks and the de-escalation agreement as reasons to press for the refugees to return home.

The agreement allows for attacks on a hard-line Islamist insurgent group, the Levant Liberation Committee. The group is the most powerful one within the de-escalation zone that includes Atarib and the neighbouring province of Idlib, dominating more moderate groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.

But Atarib is not under the control of the Levant Liberation Committee. The town is known for its history of civil and armed resistance against both the Syrian government and hard-line Islamist groups. Its residents helped local rebels expel Daesh in 2014, and they drove out the Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front after it tried to take over in 2015.

To Atarib residents, the attack bolstered a sense that the de-escalation agreement is failing to protect them, and highlighted the dissociation between international diplomacy and local reality.

“It is a norm now that the civilians are being targeted everywhere,” said Shady Al Mahmoud, an activist from Atarib, “and the international silence that follows such atrocities has become a norm as well.”

In recent months, air strikes by the Syrian government or Russia have hit schools, hospitals and homes in Idlib and in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, another de-escalation zone, where the UN says 400,000 residents are trapped and where one in four children are at risk of malnutrition. A World Food Programme warehouse in Eastern Ghouta was attacked this month. The other de-escalation zones encompass Homs province in the north and a stretch of southern Syria that borders Jordan.

Further complicating the picture is the Syrian government strategy of forcing the surrender of rebel-held areas and offering people there the choice of returning to government control or being bused to places like Idlib; some have ended up in Atarib.

“Tens of thousands of civilians have been forcibly displaced to opposition-held areas in the north under local deals after enduring years of unlawful siege and bombardment,” Rageh said. “They are essentially stuck and exposed as easy marks.”

In the Atarib attack, witnesses said three air strikes hit the market, leaving little doubt that it was the target. Members of a civil police force that patrols the rebel-held area in the absence of government law enforcement were also killed.

Last month, Turkey established observation posts around Idlib province under the de-escalation deal, including one just 15 miles north of Atarib. But Turkey has made no statement about the strike. A local group that tracks warplanes spotted Russian ones nearby at the time of the attack, but Russia has provided no information.

In its report, Amnesty International asserted that the de-escalation deal has been used, in essence, for “the government to reclaim control of territory by first starving and then removing inhabitants who rejected its rule.”

Syria’s government has signalled reservations about the premise of the de-escalation deal. Ali Haidar, minister of reconciliation, said in an interview with Syrian state media that failure of the agreement would put all other options back on the table — including military force.

“The Syrian state has one option: to eliminate terrorism and the whole of terrorism and to restore any area of Syria,” he said.