Syria Weekly: Idlib under attack
Syria's Idlib has been subject to weeks of shelling, resulting in the deaths of at least of 160 people since the beginning of February. With Ankara eager to end the killings, an agreement was brokered to establish Turkish and Russian patrols in and around a de-escalation zone, which separates regime and rebel forces.
Hours later, and heavy Russian bombing hit hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, with Ankara's plans to end the bloodshed in tatters.
The UN's refugee agency has been under fire this week, following a visit by leading UNHCR officials to regime-controlled areas of Syria, which some activists have called a "PR coup" for Bashar al-Assad.
UNHCR's Commissioner Filippo Grandi and Chief Communications Melissa Fleming made a series of social media videos during the visit, and appeared to welcome the return of refugees to cities such as Homs, which was heavily damaged by regime shelling and bombing earlier in Syria's war.
They visited one family that returned to Homs and praised their stoicism in trying to adapt to life in a neighbourhood completely devastated by earlier regime bombing.
|The Syrian regime has been guilty of laying siege to opposition towns and cities to starve civilians and rebels into submission|
"Utter destruction but small numbers of people are returning to this part of town and repairing. If more are to come back, they need much more support," Fleming said.
She also praised the reconstruction of a bakery in the city.
"Before the war destroyed it, Souran Public Bakery provided bread for 75,000 people. UNHCR & Syrian partner SSDD rehabilitated a building and now it provides daily bread for 12,250 returned people. We got to taste a piece and it is delicious," she beamed. Activists pointed out that she failed to mention that bakeries and markets have been deliberately targeted by regime and Russian bombers.
Nor did she mention that the Syrian regime has been guilty of laying siege to opposition towns and cities to starve civilians and rebels into submission.
Commissioner Filippo Grandi also pushed for the Syrian government to grant the UN Refugee Agency greater access to the country, complaining the regime had blocked his attempts to visit sensitive areas such as Eastern Ghouta. But he still welcomed the return of Syrians, despite many facing conscription, arrest or murder if they attempt to go back to their homes.
"Some of the Syrian children who were refugees abroad or displaced in Syria are returning home, filling crowded classrooms. Supporting Syrian returnees is an urgent humanitarian task which we must step up," Grandi wrote on Twitter.
Lebanon's President Michal Aoun, viewed as backing the Syrian regime, has called on the UNHCR to assist the repatriation of Syrian refugees, despite aid groups and NGOs and activists warning that they could face imprisonment, torture or death at the hands of regime security services.
Read also: Syria's Idlib under attack, forcing humanitarian work to halt
"The regime that destroyed these homes, murdered inhabitants, forced survivors into exile - it is still in power, torturing and killing," the SyriaUK activist group responded. "Syrians need safety first. There is no safety with Assad. Shame on [UNHCR] for promoting return to this hell."
Even a recent report by the UN Syria Commission - which was tasked with investigating human rights abuses in Syria - concluded that it is not safe for Syrian refugees to return home.
"We launched our 17th mandated report to the @UN_HRC today, which documents continued hostilities and lawlessness countrywide. These factors render safe & sustainable return of displaced Syrians impossible," the report published last month read.
Lebanon, where refugees now make up around a quarter of the country's population, has been pushing for the return of Syrians. The dangers for Syrians who do move back to Syria are evident.
But Lebanon is not alone in urging refugees to return to Syria. Germany has allocated $43 million to voluntarily repatriate Syrians, with 437 so far accepting money to return home. At least two of those who were part of the German government's scheme have been "disappeared" by the Syrian regime.
The UNHCR has yet to respond to requests for comment.
The southern Syrian province of Daraa was one of the first places to rise up against Bashar al-Assad's regime during the 2011 Arab Spring. After the regime captured opposition territories last year following a punishing offensive, the region has been generally quiet - but anger has been simmering.
Many locals are troubled that former opposition fighters - who had agreed to surrender as part of a reconciliation deal and serve as local security - were instead being conscripted into the army or detained. Conscripts endure terrible conditions while serving in the army and have been essentially used as cannon fodder in regime offensives.
When a statue of former president - and Bashar al-Assad's father - Hafez was ordered to be re-erected in Daraa this week, this was one insult too many, where basic services - such as electricity - are lacking and arrests have been commonplace.
People took to the streets in Daraa city - probably the biggest protests to take place in regime areas since 2011. The demonstrations were broken up following gunfire by local security forces, with residents likely aware of the regime's willingness to use unbridled force against anyone who steps out of line.
White Helmets killed
Russian airstrikes on Idlib resumed over the weekend, with the blitzkrieg following weeks of regime shelling on towns and villages in the opposition province. Two White Helmets volunteers were killed over the weekend, bringing the death toll of the Syrian rescue workers to 261.
Nour Alden Haj Hussein was killed on Sunday when regime shelling targeted a civil rescue centre in northern Hama. Mahmoud Abdel Aal was killed on Saturday in a Russian "double tap bombing" in al-Muntar, western Idlib province.
Double tap strikes have been widely used by Russia since their intervention in Syria's war began in 2015. Bombsites are targeted for a repeat strike minutes after the first explosions, with the aim of killing and maiming White Helmets workers and other local rescuers during search and rescue operations.
A video released by the White Helmets showed Abdel Aal's last moments, as he attempted to rescue survivors of an initial Russian strike. On the same weekend, White Helmets workers rescued a baby girl who was caught up in the bombing of Idlib.
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Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin