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As a ceasefire takes hold in northwest Syria, civilians count the costs of a devastating government offensive

After months of bitter fighting in Syria’s civil war, Russian and Turkish presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, agreed to a ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria. The announcement came a few days shy of marking the country’s ninth year of conflict. It is far from certain that this precarious ceasefire will hold, and civilians displaced by fighting now face the threat of malnutrition, water-borne diseases, exposure to bitter winter conditions and the emerging danger of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of explosive violence over the last few months has been profound, sparking the biggest displacement since the war began. During the fierce fighting, 1,785 were reported dead and injured due to explosive weapons, with civilian casualties totalling 1,333 (75% of total casualties). In 268 incidents recorded in January and February by the Explosive Violence Monitor in Syria, 109 uses of explosive weapons occurred in Idlib, accounting for 41% of explosive violence incidents. The government offensive, supported by Russia, has wrought havoc. In January, 725 civilian casualties were recorded across Syria. At least, 73% of civilian casualties in that month were inflicted by government forces and Russia which rose to at least 79% (418 civilian casualties) in February.

Overall, 71% of civilian casualties recorded during January-February 2020 were caused by government and Russian forces; 85% of these casualties were caused by airstrikes. In total, airstrikes accounted for 70% of civilian casualties. A further 259 civilian casualties were caused by ground-launched explosive weapons; 93 by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and 16 by landmines.

Of the 259 civilian casualties from ground-launched explosives, at least 42% of were attributed to government forces. 36% were caused by non-state armed groups.

Turkey’s military intervention has not come without consequences for civilians. At least 28 civilian casualties were recorded from explosive weapon use by Turkey or Turkish-backed factions. However, it is often unclear whether the violence is caused by Turkey or the supported factions and therefore often the perpetrator goes unrecorded. This means that Turkey and Turkish-backed factions are likely to be responsible for far more civilian casualties than the above figure indicates. With its increased use of airpower, including drones, there is also a high risk that casualties caused by the Turkish air force will increase as their involvement intensifies.

The winter fighting has had several landmarks, and despite a precarious ceasefire being put in place, the future of Syria remains uncertain. Talks brokered by Erdoğan and Putin have decreased the number of civilian casualties in the northwest, and joint Russian and Turkish patrols at key strategic points along the front are separating government forces and its proxies from Turkish-backed factions, and the assortment of rebel groups aligned against the government.

With the spread of COVID-19 in Syria, the United Nations special envoy for Syria has called for an immediate nationwide ceasefire across the war-torn country to enable an “all-out effort” to fight the pandemic. This ceasefire, however unstable, could provide a brief respite for civilians who have borne the brunt of explosive violence in the latest offensive. Yet the cost of explosive violence has left the northwest of the country ill-prepared to face threats such as COVID-19 and has left charities and ordinary people struggling to access essential supplies to prevent hunger and water-borne diseases. The decimation of Syria’s healthcare system, and widespread destruction of the conflict in Idlib province, will haunt the war-torn country in the coming months. This latest offensive in northwest Syria, and the humanitarian catastrophe it has unleashed, has proven that the closing chapters of the conflict in Syria have been among the most brutal for civilians.