Listen to the Silent Voices

As has so often been the case over the past nine years, Syria once again tragically hit the headlines in February for the military tensions in the province of Idlib, the last “de-escalation” zone and, therefore, the last rebel stronghold.

As humanitarians, we have a duty to relay the silent voices of those Syrians who remain unheard. The voices of our teams who have remained on the ground, striving to continue providing medical services. The voices of those who come to us to seek medical care. And the voices of the Syrians from Idlib who live with the bombs and constantly wonder if they will survive another day.

The province of Idlib is a pawn in a great geostrategic game with diplomatic overtones that is being played between Turkey and Russia. A game that is accompanied by sudden military escalations of such brutality that they resemble declarations of open war, followed by de-escalations that redefine and readjust the negotiating conditions in an attempt to get out of this complex military-diplomatic imbroglio. A situation that continues to make things even worse for the civilian populations trapped in Idlib.

The province of Idlib sits in a largely agricultural region which, prior to the conflict, was home to 1.5 million inhabitants and reaped the benefits of commercial towns such as Idlib, Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Sarmada, located on roads linking the main cities such as Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. Idlib is now home to perhaps as many as four million people who have taken refuge there since 2012. People who have often been displaced several times, sometimes voluntarily but mostly by force. The most destitute among them live under tarpaulins in the olive groves along the Turkish border. What most characterises this population today, trapped by the aggressive ambitions of the powers entangled in the Syrian conflict, is its immense fatigue and extreme distress after almost nine exhausting years. They strive to build a semblance of life in conditions that are constantly deteriorating. Children in Idlib no longer have childhoods. The women can no longer bear to rebuild their lives tirelessly in the face of increasingly destructive military operations. The men have lost their dignity, feeling guilty for not being able to protect their families.

These silent voices are not heard or understood outside Idlib. They are not heard above the fury of the Russian bombings, the Syrian army’s barrel bombs, the drones and various missiles that rain down on the region, the looting by the Syrian army, the permanent racketeering by armed groups and militia forces. Since January, one million people have been forced to move, particularly from the south of Idlib province to the north. The people of Idlib know that they can no longer count on anyone, let alone on an international community that has maintained a guilty silence for years.

Faced with the intentional destruction of our hospitals and with our teams being targeted, we feel helpless. We feel belittled by this international community that has cynically accepted the death of international humanitarian law. Law that is supposed to protect our actions to enable us to meet the needs of civilian populations. These populations are now victims of the destructive ambitions of the most powerful and their irresponsibility and incompetence to lead the world, contrary to what they claim. None of them is capable of voicing reason. Reason that is consistently whispered in their ears by global humanitarian civil society.

Worse still, in the great regional and international game that is being played around Syria, these silent voices of Idlib are thrown around by the belligerents, who make themselves heard or understood through their military force.

It is not in the interest of the Damascus regime to reintegrate these populations, given that a strategy where a population changes, even if that means keeping them or pushing them into exile, is a strategy for stabilising its social base. This is not the first such attempt it has made. It managed to get rid of a third of its population (more than seven million people) during the first five years of the conflict by pushing them out of Syrian territory. Succeeding in expelling a few million more from Idlib to Turkey so that they can then hammer against the walls of Fortress Europe would be an uncompromising victory for Bashar Al Assad.

And Russia plays its own cynical role. In the offensive phase it has been conducting since December 2019 (the second against the province) to restore the Damascus regime throughout Syria, it is ready to use the waves of refugees that will pile up against the Turkish border to put pressure on Turkey… and through sheer numbers, that will weaken NATO (to which Turkey has appealed) and Europe by triggering waves of refugees.

In a form of populist blackmail aimed at “either ensuring that the refugees return to live an honourable life on their own land or that everyone bears their share of the burden” (Erdogan), Turkey has, since the end of February, brandished the potential Hydra of a wave of refugees entering Europe.

The United States stepped out of the game when the Pentagon and Centcom made it known that they would not encourage military escalation by supporting Turkey, even though other parts of the Trump administration would not look unfavourably on a rupture between Turkey and Russia being sealed in Idlib.

At least 14 European foreign ministers (only 14), deplored the situation on a platform on 26 February 2020. But they are likely to remain very short-sighted if waves of migrants cross the Greek borders. The forthcoming municipal elections in France underline the risk of the issue being politically highjacked, as some have already begun to do, for want of any other project. And we know all too well that building walls, electronic barriers or even violence, as shown in some videos, can do little when people are desperate and when others seize opportunities.

The real political work starts at an earlier stage. Political work which is currently a complete failure and which, due to the refusal of many European States to accept their “quota” of refugees, produces, among other things, overcrowded open-air prisons on the Greek islands. “Hotspots” such as the Moria camp in Lesbos and Vathi in Samos have become camps of shame, where refugees are crowded together in inhuman conditions. Even access to the most basic services is no longer guaranteed, despite the fact that these camps were presented as a flagship measure of the EU’s response to the migration crisis in 2015. For both the refugees and the inhabitants of these islands, the situation is becoming unbearable. Europe has declared a new war on its south-eastern border, a war on refugees, who are the bargaining chips between Turkey and Europe, which watches them being crushed against its barbed wire or perishing at sea in total indifference. Europe now seems, even more so than in 2015, incapable of showing humanity. This unbearable indifference is that of an embittered Europe. A Europe whose heart no longer beats for the fraternity of peoples as Victor Hugo dreamed.

As humanitarians, we continue modestly doing our work, but this cannot replace genuine diplomacy, driven by Europe. Political work rather than simple humanitarian lamentations or positioning in terms of international justice. There is a real need for this, as Turkey negotiates with the Russians, even if that means defending what it sees as its national interests through a military escalation in the province of Idlib. And as the Russians seem determined to move towards “comprehensive compromise agreements” that would take into account certain Turkish interests beyond the reconquest of Idlib for the benefit of the Damascus regime. Europe has expertise in post-conflict situations that might be applicable.

Above all, we need to move forward and respond to the final silent voices calling to us from Syria.

Dr. Philippe de Botton, Président de Médecins du Monde
Joel Weiler, Directeur général de Médecins du Monde
Fyras Mawazini, vice-président de Médecins du Monde
Philippe Droz-Vincent, responsable de la mission Syrie pour Médecins du Monde

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