Sky News on Tuesday reported seeing “first-hand evidence that hospitals in Idlib are being targeted by Syrian regime forces who also appear to be using banned cluster bombs as they ratchet up their bombardment of the last rebel stronghold in the country.”
The report was filed by a Sky News team reportedly able to gain access to the city of Idlib and surrounding communities, where the Assad regime deliberately attacks medical facilities almost every day. Assad troops have shelled some hospitals over a dozen times.
While the Sky News reporters were visiting one hospital, a warplane blasted overhead, prompting the medical staff to shout warnings to take cover. Some hospitals have literally gone underground to escape the bombing. Others said they must scramble to evacuate their facilities when tipped off that a Syrian military attack is incoming, often with only half an hour’s warning. Civilians say they are frightened to use hospitals and clinics because they know they could be attacked.
U.N. officials said they have shared the locations of hospitals and other vulnerable civilian structures with military forces operating in Syria, including the Syrian regime’s patrons in Russia, so the attacks are clearly deliberate.
The evidence of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad using banned cluster bombs to attack hospitals took the form of cone-shaped silver fuses recovered from one of the attack sites. The weapons are banned because the spray of cluster munitions they deploy is indiscriminate and causes heavy collateral damage.
The Sky News reporters also heard Assad is once again using “barrel bombs,” an equally indiscriminate, cheaply-produced mass-casualty weapon that amounts to barrels full of explosives heaved out of orbiting helicopters. The news team did not personally witness any barrel bomb attacks.
An angry doctor in Idlib told the reporters the Western world has received evidence about Assad’s crimes against humanity, including new reports of chemical weapons deployment, but “no one cares.”
“It’s a war crime to make thousands of people leave their homes but the world is silent about these war crimes against civilians,” the doctor said.
The United States is investigating the latest reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, most recently including a chlorine gas attack in Idlib, but has yet to uncover firm evidence of such an attack. The investigators did confirm “indiscriminate and very vicious” attacks on civilians by the Assad regime using conventional weapons.
Officials in Idlib asked Turkey for protection on Monday as they dug in to repel an expected ground offensive by the Syrian army.
“This ferocious attack is a bone-breaking battle. If the regime is able to break our defensive lines in northern Hama and southern Idlib it will not stop until it reaches the borders,” the head of the local government told Reuters.
A jihadist group called Hayat al-Sham, an offshoot of al-Qaeda formerly known as the Nusra Front, currently controls the province, although other elements of the flagging Syrian resistance have coalesced in Idlib to repel a government assault that could effectively end the Syrian civil war.
The unsavory nature of Idlib’s leadership and the world’s weariness with the long and brutal war, which no longer has any serious chance of dislodging Assad from power, are likely factors in the muted response to Assad’s latest attacks on civilians. The Russians, who have maintained all along they were helping Assad fend off a coup by terrorists, accuse the West and United Nations of prolonging civilian suffering by helping jihadist groups maintain control of Idlib.
Idlib was supposed to be protected by a “de-escalation” agreement between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, but hundreds of civilians have been killed since the Syrian army disregarded the agreement and intensified attacks on the province in late April.
International aid organizations are bracing for the “worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st Century” in Idlib, including a new refugee crisis as up to 700,000 residents are displaced from their homes. Idlib has already absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees driven from other areas by fighting in the late stages of the civil war.