The discussion happened as a part of a series of events organized around the anniversary of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova’s murder.
Syrian activists participated in the discussion and were dialed-in via skype. The participants also saw video messages recorded by the civilians of Idlib, where they described the consequences of Russian and Syrian airstrikes. Human rights defenders shared a statement on situation in Syria, which will be addressed to Russian government — they also invited activists and organizations co-sign it.
A member of Human Rights Center Memorial Milana Bakhaeva opened the discussion with the words of regret that Russian civil society is keeping silence about Syria even though Russian government and military play an important role in this complicated conflict. «While we keep silence, we are responsible for every bomb. Natasha [Estemirova] wouldn’t be silent.»
According to the director of Conflict Analysis & Prevention Center Ekaterina Sokirianskaia Russian human rights defenders started working on Syrian issues only 7 years after the conflict had begun. She noted that in 2018 activists from Human Rights Center Memorial, Soldiers’ Mothers Committee of St. Petersburg, Youth Human Rights Movement and other organizations met with Syrian activists and civil society representatives, learned more about the issues of Syrian refugees for the very first time.
Elena Milashina from Novaya Gazeta explained that Russia intervened into the conflict in mid-2015 with the excuse of fighting international terrorism. Later president Putin declared — many times — that terrorism was defeated; but Russian military did not leave Syria.
Idlib — is one of the last de-escalation zones which is still not under Syrian regime’s control. Four of such zones were established by Russia, Turkey and Iran in 2017 to induce the decrease of military action and the creation of working political mechanisms of conflict regulation, to guarantee humanitarian access to civilians. But military operations never stopped.
At the moment around 3 million people populate Idlib province — these are both locals and previously internally displaced Syrians who escaped war in other areas of the country. The territory is controlled by armed groups in opposition to Bashar Assad, including those which were recognized as terrorist and prohibited in Russia.
But no war against terrorism can excuse the bombardment of residential areas, key civilian infrastructure and objects (hospitals, water tanks, markets, schools etc.). It is the bombardment of these areas as well as of the refugee camps which results in the most of civilian deaths in Idlib. Despite multiple call for Russia, as a member of the UNSC, about the importance of following the norms of the international law in Syrian conflict, Russian side always used its veto power to block the decisions that were aimed at preventing the causalities among the civilian population.
Now Idlib is on the brink of humanitarian disaster: since the end of April it was subjected to regular indiscriminate bombing and shelling which resulted in mass deaths of civilians (including children), the destruction of civic infrastructure, leaving people without medical help, access to water, food, and the possibility to leave the area of military operations — as for Syrian refugees all the borders of neighboring countries are closed.
«No one talks about it in Russia. And on international level and inside Syria our country is seen not as just an actor in this conflict but as an aggressor as well. This creates a potential threat to all Russian citizens, that’s why it is important to know about what is going on in Syria and to ask questions to Russian government about their goals and the price of our participation in this war,» — said the journalist.
Three Syrians took part in the discussion: Syrian orthopaedic surgeon and the head of the department of healthcare in Idlib Munsel Al Halil; halia Rahal, the founder of Syrian organization Mazaya based in Idlib, and civil activist and feminist Hunada Alhariri.
Doctor Al Halil explained that the healthcare infrastructure in Idlib is completely destroyed as a result of bombings, the equipment is either too old or non-existent. The majority of medical professionals fled the country — away from the war and repressions. Medical professionals systematically faced violence for giving medical assistance to injured, including those from the opposition. Al Halil judged the situation as critical.
Ghalia Rahal described that people live in constant fear. During the videocall she had with the participants of the event on July 16 she got news about another bombardment. «Everyone wants to live their life in peace... If you can convince the Russian government to stop their violations against the civilians, children, please do so. We want to return to peaceful life!» — she explained.
Both Russian speakers explained that very few Russian journalists are actively interested in the situation in Syria, particularly in Idlib. But the activists are prepared to talk, share information with Russian human rights defenders and media.
Now there is a statement prepared about the humanitarian situation in Idlib which can be joined until 23th of July. The text of the statement is here.