INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS
15 November 2018: United Nations Senior Adviser, Jan Egeland told the Press in Geneva that a humanitarian convoy of 78 trucks had made it to Rukban, the "most desolate place on earth," where 40,000-50,000 civilians have been trapped in the desert on the border with Jordan. The UN has been trying since January 2018 to get aid to Rukban, and finally they did, between 3 and 8 November.
The "very large convoy" was able to navigate "some of the most dangerous areas of Syria to deliver food, medicine, sanitary items and water purification supplies that will meet needs for about a month. The success was attributed to the "active and positive deconfliction" security measures by the Russian Federation within the area controlled by the Government of Syria, and the efforts of the United States in coordination with Jordan in the area controlled by six armed groups.
Mr. Egelund said the next step was to get the three countries to continue cooperating to get the people out of Rukban. The situation there posed "horrific protection challenges," especially for women and children. He noted the story of the 13-year-old mother who was pregnant again after delivering her first baby in "totally substandard conditions." There was not a single trained doctor in Rukban. The UN was now working to have another convoy there before mid-December.
It was a matter of celebration that Idlib had gone two months without air raids. It had been the quietest two monthsin the last five years. However, there was more shelling along the outer perimeter of the so-called buffer zone; and it was very tense inside the zone where some two to three million civilians were trapped. There were "a million questions of whether this is quiet before the big storm or this is quiet before peace."
Both Russia and Turkey had told the UN they will go to great lengths to avoid military action, to avoid escalated armed conflict in Idlib. As long as their forces and bases are not attacked they are working to avoid bloodshed. "That makes us nervous, Mr Egelund said, adding that "there are many signs that bad things will happen unless there are further breakthroughs in the negotiations with the numerous armed groups inside."
He noted that living under armed groups was not easy, for "with or without beards," they were "not known for their good governance." In Idlib "there are many instances of fighting among groups, bad behavior by groups, recklessness and ruthlessness. So, it’s no solution to freeze the situation as it is now, the civilians need better, they need a normalization of their situation."
FINAL ISIS ENCLAVES
There is "a forgotten military campaign happening in the very east of Syria" where "hundreds of air raids" were being conducted on the last Islamic State enclaves in the Hajin area. There were "indeed many ruthless Islamic State fighters there, but there are also 10,000 civilians." Twenty-seven thousand people had been displaced since the US-led coalition and the Kurdish-led SDF forces started the assault on the enclaves.
"One of the many concerns are that when civilians flee this area they end up in screening camps, which they cannot leave, which are just next to the battle zone. At least once, Islamic State fighters have come and torched such a camp. We told again the coalition to work to immediately have these camps moved out of harm’s way and also really not treat women and children as suspects, but as civilians who need help—they are severely traumatized."
Also, "hundreds of air strikes and many more you know grenades and mortar attacks on an area full of civilians—is causing civilian suffering. The civilians in an area held by terrorists have the same protection under humanitarian law and we asked for more action to avoid the loss of civilian lives."
In answer to questions, Mr. Egelund said that "the US-led Coalition tells us... that extreme precaution has been taken in the selection of targets, that the hundreds of targets have been selected because of Islamic State fighters being there." A mosque was hit because it was an Islamic State command centre. "It is very hard to really check what is happening, the way it ended in Raqqa makes me nervous for how it could end in the much smaller Hajin area," he said. Islamic State forces were "using civilians as human shields, violating every rule of the book." Those "attacking have no reason to slack in their attention to this being full of also women and children. If they are dependents of Islamic State fighters they are still have protection."
Finally, the issue of "Law 10" was a matter of great concern to "tens of thousands of families who are sitting in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey, in Iraq, and elsewhere," because it set time limits to claim abandoned land and property refugees had left behind in Syria.
Law 10 was promulgated last Sunday by the President of Syria after being agreed in Parliament. Mr. Egelund noted that he had been told in the middle of October by "the Russian side that this law was withdrawn," but it was not. However, there had been some improvements in Law 10 since then: the time limit had been increased from 30 days to a year, it had been clarified that officially registered property was not endangered, and that expropriations can be challenged in courts. These improvements did not benefit many people who owned unregistered land.