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Military Offensive In Syria's Idlib Province Creates Humanitarian Crisis

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Syrian government is trying to reclaim the last rebel-held province in the country, Idlib, in northwest Syria. It's moving ground forces in with Russia providing air support. Now, since December, almost a million people - most of them women and children - have been displaced. Turkey says it can't take in any more Syrians. Around 3 1/2 million are already there.

Mark Lowcock is the United Nations' humanitarian chief, and he's on the line from New Zealand. Good morning, sir.

MARK LOWCOCK: Good morning.

KING: Syria's civil war has been going on for nine years, and yet this situation in Idlib is notably bad. Why is that?

LOWCOCK: You're right. This is something the like of which, having followed this horrible, horrible war for nine years, I've not seen before. And essentially, it's because the way a lot of the previous hold spots (ph) were resolved in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta was by people leaving from those places to go to Idlib.

And now there's nowhere left to go. So as you said, there's something like 950,000 people who've been forced to flee the advancing Syrian armies with their Russian and other allies since the beginning of December. And they're cramped and congested in smaller and smaller parts of northwestern Syria.

KING: Are their lives at risk?

LOWCOCK: There are lives being lost every day. Every day I'm waking up to stories of camps for displaced people being bombed, children and babies freezing to death, aid workers trying to go back to their hospitals that have been bombed and rescue what material can be rescued and then finding they're bombed again. This is a horror story.

KING: Isn't bombing hospitals and camps for displaced people, isn't that a war crime?

LOWCOCK: Under international humanitarian law, the parties to any conflict are obliged to protect civilian facilities - people's homes, their bakeries, their schools and their hospitals.

KING: You're saying it is a war crime?

LOWCOCK: Well, I'm not a lawyer. But the international humanitarian law, which everybody has signed up to, requires people to behave in a way which protects civilians. And that, blatantly, transparently, is not what's happening right now.

KING: Why isn't the U.N. able to take any action then? Is there anything the United Nations could do here?

LOWCOCK: Well, the thing the United Nations can do and we are doing is bringing as much relief and help in from Turkey to these poor people as we can - hundreds of trucks a week with food and sleeping bags and tents and stoves and warm clothes and so on. But there's nothing that will protect a baby against the bombs being dropped on the tent they're sleeping in. And one of the problems is that the members of the U.N. Security Council can't agree on how to deal with this problem. There needs to be an agreement to stop the carnage and to stop the assault. Otherwise, we're going to see mass atrocities.

KING: What's at the heart of the disagreement?

LOWCOCK: The Russian and Syrian governments argue that there are terrorists in this part of Syria and that it's reasonable to go after them. And there are clearly members of organizations which the Security Council has listed as terrorist organizations. But the point to make is there are a hundred civilians - most of them women and babies and children - for every man with a gun and a bomb. And what is happening is not proportionate to the circumstances. The terrible suffering that is being inflicted on civilians - being forced away from their homes such that there's no point of refuge - is not acceptable.

KING: Mark Lowcock, thank you so much for joining us.

LOWCOCK: Thank you.

KING: Mark Lowcock is the United Nations' under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination.

(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "CONCEPT 9") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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