AMMAN, JORDAN - Russian-backed Syrian forces struck a cluster of towns in the northwestern province of Idlib on Wednesday, shattering a cease-fire along with civilian hopes that a U.N. vote reauthorizing cross-border aid might bring quiet and relief.
"I was in town to take my son to the clinic. Then Russian warplanes bombed a site just 500 meters away," said Ahlam Alrasheed, an Arabic-language teacher who runs a women's center funded by the Christian charity group World Vision in Idlib. "The explosion killed five civilians, and we fled before the doctor could examine my son.
"There was no way to get his prescription filled, and my son is still sick."
Orient TV, a Syrian opposition channel, reported that Russian warplanes and Syrian government artillery units started violating the cease-fire Saturday, beginning with the Idlib countryside and the town of Maarat al-Nuaman, south of the Turkish border.
"At least 10 civilians were killed, including our volunteer, Shadi al-Asaad, when airstrikes targeted the public market and industrial area of the city. Our search-and-rescue operations will continue," said Khaled Khatib, spokesman for the Syria Civil Defense, popularly known as the White Helmets.
Idlib province and the volunteer search-and-rescue group had a lethal year.
"Our teams documented 1,830 deaths in 2019, including 450 children and 333 women," Khatib said. "We lost 21 volunteers from our ranks as a result of double raids and direct targeting during our operations."
Aid crossings, shipments
Few in Idlib see much relief arriving as a result of Friday's U.N. Security Council vote that reduced the number of aid crossing points from four to two.
"Warplanes target many sites in this area, and they spare nothing," Alrasheed continued. "Humanitarian groups offer what they can, but it's not enough to meet the calamity we are suffering."
Alrasheed described how desperate parents send their children out into the cold to collect garbage and plastic to burn as heating fuel.
The Security Council authorized aid shipments for only six months instead of the year mandate sought by the United States and other council members.
"Pregnant women find no place to give birth because hospitals have been bombed, nor do not have any clothes for infants once they are born," Alrasheed added. "So the decision to authorize humanitarian aid for only six months seems to foreshadow a major catastrophe."
The resolution officially ended aid shipments through the al-Ramtha crossing in Jordan, and al-Yarubiyah in Iraq, with convoys now authorized to travel only through the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings in Turkey.
"Health will be the sector most affected by the suspension of al-Yarubiyah as World Health Organization supplies will not continue to come in," said David Swanson spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Amman.
"Last year, over 1.4 million people benefited from essential medical supplies shipped through the crossing. That includes essential medicine, as well as surgical and trauma equipment."
The shut-down at al-Yarubiyah is likely to lead to hundreds of preventable deaths.
"This [closure] would result in increased morbidity and mortality among the populations of northeast Syria," Swanson said. "Most impacted will be women, children, and those with traumatic injuries."
Army interference alleged
Refugees from Idlib who've found asylum in Europe say all armed parties in Syria endanger efforts to help the internally displaced civilians trapped inside the battle zone.
"We all know that most aid arriving in the (President Bashir al-)Assad-controlled areas goes to the Syrian army instead to those who are in need," said Abdul Aziz Ajini, a 51-year-old former English literature professor.
Ajini made it out of Idlib through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and onward to Germany in September.
"Authorization of humanitarian access is vital for the survival of people in the north. But Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS] (militant group) hovers in the background taking taxes from the people going through," said Ajini.
Meanwhile, fears are rising that the Damascus government and its allies will continue to make a battlefield out of aid allocation.
"The vote is a declaration that all aid from Jordan and Iraq should go through official Syrian government implementers. Millions could be at risk as the government directs aid solely through its channels and uses assistance for political gain," said Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a Syrian affairs research organization in Istanbul.
'Failures to deliver aid'
"The U.N. system continues to show major failures to deliver aid without politicization to get aid to all Syrians in need," Kahf added. "Continued lack of concern by Russia for real humanitarian suffering is troubling for prospects of peace and stability."
On Sunday, Russia's Defense Ministry said that civilians in Idlib could leave the conflict zone via three new checkpoints. But Idlib's refugees don't want to live in territory controlled by Syrian government forces they have fled from during the war.
After Friday's council vote, the Assad government's U.N. representative, Bashar al-Jaafari, insisted that the regime's preferred aid partner — the Damascus-headquartered Syrian Red Crescent — has "engaged in humanitarian work in serious cooperation with U.N.-related agencies."
"Since this terrorist war [was launched] against Syria, we exerted best efforts to guarantee basic services and offer aid and support to all citizens without any discrimination," al-Jaafari declared.
However, the claims of the Damascus government are contested by those delivering emergency assistance on the ground in northwest Syria.
"Why is Russia restricting aid to six months only?" asked Fouad Sayed Issa, the 24-year-old founder of Violet, a group that houses refugees at 14 Idlib shelters.
"We wonder if this is what they need to take all the area and finish the 4 million civilians in this region. People are asking where they should go."
For now, Idlib residents say their chief struggle is to stay warm, find medicine, and maintain hope.
"We see new diseases not previously familiar to the population," said Faisal Alhamoud, a 35-year-old child welfare worker and father of six. "People are forced to make home remedies with weeds growing by the roadside because there is a lack of medicine. Medical teams locate hospitals in hidden areas underground to avoid direct bombing.
"Families who can't find shelter are living under trees exposed to the cold and frost," said Alhamoud. "We hope that keeping the two crossings open will bring aid to our people. But right now, I worry my children will die in the bombing, and my only prayer is for them to be safe."