The UN Secretary-General said on Thursday that he hoped the latest ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey to end fighting across Syria’s stricken Idlib region, would finally lead to “an immediate and lasting cessation”, that would protect civilian lives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his opposite number in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reportedly agreed to begin the cessation of hostilities around Idlib, at midnight on Thursday, local time, agreeing also establish a security corridor and joint patrols.
Yesterday @WFPChief wrapped up his visit to #Syria with @unicefchief. @WFP & @UNICEF joined forces to help prevent & treat malnutrition and provide school feeding to keep children in school, while efforts of bringing peace continue 🕊️ pic.twitter.com/BDH7TjhmcY— WFP Middle East (@WFP_MENA) March 5, 2020
More than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed last month around Idlib during the Russian-backed Syrian Government offensive, which was attempting to regain control of the final rebel stronghold in the country, after nearly nine years of brutal war.
In response, Turkey – which backs some of the rebel militia - targeted Syrian positions with aircraft, drones and artillery, raising fears of a direct military confrontation between Russia and Turkey.
“The Secretary-General hopes that this agreement will lead to an immediate and lasting cessation of hostilities that ensures the protection of civilians in northwest Syria, who have already endured enormous suffering”, said a statement issued on behalf of UN chief António Guterres.
He called for a return to the UN-facilitated political process mandated by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).
Since March 2011, Syria has been in the throes of a conflict that has forced more than half of all Syrians to leave their homes.
According to the UN humanitarian wing, OCHA, an estimated five million Syrians have fled the country, six million others are internally displaced, over 13 million people need assistance and an untold number of men, women and children are suffering greatly.
Prior to the truce announcement, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Henrietta Fore, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley, ended a two-day visit to Syria with a call to end the violence and improve country-wide access.
“Children across Syria are enduring the impact of a merciless war and will continue to suffer long after the guns have gone silent,” said the UNICEF chief, pointing out that over the past nine years, “schools and hospitals have been bombed, families have been torn apart and young lives have been lost”.
The agency chiefs also stressed the need to improve economic conditions and provide families with basic services.
“The millions of people whose lives have been shattered by war can no longer afford to put food on the table as the Syrian economy has taken a nosedive in recent months,” flagged Mr. Beasley.
They stressed that being able to move staff and supplies across conflict lines and borders is critical for reaching the populations most in need, particularly as 11 million people in the country, five million of whom are children, require humanitarian assistance.
“The war has left Syria a broken country and above all, the people desperately need peace”, underscored the WFP chief.
Meeting and greeting
During their trip, the UN officials visited a school, a food distribution centre and a health clinic in southern Idlib, 30 kilometres away from the battle zone.
They met schoolchildren who were born the year the war started and are trying to catch up on their learning after years of missing out.
Among those they met was a woman who lost her business when forced to flee her home, who is now dependent on WFP assistance to provide for her three young siblings with disabilities.
“Even in areas far away from the frontlines, families are struggling to feed their children and rebuild their lives”, said Ms. Fore.
Further north in Idlib, the situation of children and families has become even more critical.
In the past three months alone, more than half a million children have been displaced, further aggravating an already dire situation in northwest where 2.8 out of four million people were already estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN humanitarian affairs coordination office, OCHA.
Moreover, some 180 schools are out of operation because they were destroyed, damaged or used to shelter displaced families. And since last year, food prices have increased by 120 per cent.
A ‘collective failure’
UNICEF and WFP are working jointly to help prevent and treat malnutrition, strengthen data collection, and provide student meals to keep children in school.
Amid a dangerous escalation in fighting, they traveled to northwest Syria where one-third of the population are food insecure, one-in-three children are out of school, and over half of all health facilities non-functional.
Meanwhile, in the northeast, despite the heroic efforts of humanitarian partners, tens of thousands of children continue to languish in displacement camps, deprived of the most basic services.
Some 28,000 children from more than 60 countries, including 20,000 from Iraq – many with reported ties to extremist former combatants - remain stranded in Al Hol camp, rejected by their governments and shunned by their communities.
While the humanitarian community is scaling up its response to the ongoing crisis, gaps across sectors persist due to the scale of humanitarian needs.
“For those responsible for this collective failure on Syria: History will judge you harshly”, concluded Ms. Fore.