Lara Kajs | 22 November 2022 |
On the morning of Sunday, 6 November, a series of deadly ground assaults and airstrikes was launched against six camps housing internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Idlib governate of northwest Syria. The IDP camp attack in Syria is believed to have been carried out by either Syrian regime forces or Russian forces, or both. The intense shelling included cluster munitions, which are internationally banned and a violation of international humanitarian law.
The Syrian Civil Defense Forces (the White Helmets) indicated that at least nine people were killed, and some eighty people were injured. Among those killed was Azam Bakir, a four-month-old baby boy. The camps targeted were Maram Camp, Wadi Khaled Camp, Mahtat Mayah Kafr Ruhin Camp, Watan Camp, Murin Village Camp, and B’ieba Camp.
It is concerning that several densely populated IDP camps were struck during attacks that appear to have been carried out without regard for their lethal impact on civilians. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited by international humanitarian law and, depending on the circumstances, may amount to war crimes.
The Maram IDP camp in Kafr Jalis was one of the camps attacked. Yakzan Shishakly, co-founder of the Maram Foundation noted that the camp was established under the supervision of the High Commission for Refugee Affairs. The camp and its administration are funded by the UN, in collaboration with Maram Foundation.
Maram Foundation has served the displaced population in northwest Syria since 2012. The organization’s first camp, the ‘Olive Tree Camp’ helped more than 28,000 displaced people at the start of the conflict. A decade later, Maram Foundation has assisted more than 1.5 million displaced people throughout northwest Syria.
Conflict and Civilians
Displaced persons are the most vulnerable population in conflict. They are forced to make sacrifices – through no fault of their own. They have already been forced out of their homes and have to seek safety elsewhere. Civilians pay an intolerable price in the loss of lives.
Conflict reduces access to healthcare and life-saving services. Destruction of essential infrastructure prohibits safe movement, access to clean water and hygiene, poor sanitation, and limited access to humanitarian resources. There is a risk of further displacement. And all of this is exacerbated by harsh weather conditions, a desperate economic situation, and severe health concerns such as an outbreak of cholera in the Idlib province, as well as Covid.
In Syria, eleven years of conflict have displaced nearly twelve million people – sometimes multiple times – and finding shelter in a camp is a relief and offers hope. As a result of the attack in Kafr Jalis, some 400 families have been newly displaced.
Increased Hostilities in Idlib
The increase in hostilities and return to violence is a cause for alarm for those displaced by the conflict. The region has become the last major stronghold of two opposition groups, the Syrian National Army (SNA) – backed by Turkey, and the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militia (HTS) – which Turkey has designated a terrorist group. In addition to fighting the Syrian government, these two groups are also in conflict with each other.
A 2020 truce, negotiated between Russia and Turkey was meant to bring relief to the region, by ending the Russian-backed Syrian offensive in northwest Syria. However, the ceasefire has been repeatedly violated over the past two years. In July 2022, seven civilians, including four children from one family, were killed in a Russian air strike in Idlib. Then in October, the level of hostilities involving several groups, particularly HTS and some of the Turkish-affiliated armed groups increased, raising concerns that violence could spread and impact other key areas, including Idlib. The assault against the IDP camps came one day after Syrian soldiers were killed in shelling by HTS.
It is essential that all parties to the conflict strictly abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities. They must take all reasonable precautions to avoid and minimize incidental loss, injury of civilians, and damage to civilian property.
The international community must hold those responsible for these attacks accountable. Without international accountability, there is the risk of further supporting a government that continues to use unlawful weapons to indiscriminately target civilians – whether that is Syria and/or Russia. The international community has a responsibility to protect civilians – especially displaced persons in camps.
Image Credit: Maram IDP camp shelling on 6 November 2022 – courtesy of Dr. Kerem Kinik