Russia relaunches Idlib bombing campaign

With Tehran's support, Moscow has renewed its airstrikes against the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. The UN told DW that the looming battle could create the worst humanitarian crisis in decades.

The Kremlin restarted its bombing campaign on the Syrian city of Idlib on Tuesday, over objections from the United States. British-based watchdog the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported airstrikes against the city on Tuesday.

"Russian warplanes resumed bombing Idlib province after a 22-day pause," said SOHR chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

The White House had warned that a "reckless attack" on one of the last rebel-held areas in the country would be a "grave humanitarian mistake" that could destabilize the peace process and kill thousands. Top US generals also cautioned that without more precise planning, Russia was risking the deaths of an untold number of civilians.

Iran, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it would also be helping remove militants from Idlib with the least amount of casualties possible.

"The situation in Idlib is sensitive," Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told state TV. "Our efforts are for...the exit of terrorists from Idlib to be carried out with the least human cost."

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Struggling to cope

Local authorities affiliated with the Raqqa Civil Council are struggling to cope with the logistical challenges of recovering bodies and providing information to families looking for their missing or dead relatives. What used to be the grounds of the city's zoo is now in fact one of several sites of mass graves in Raqqa.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Shallow graves

Mohammed Assad, the on-site autopsy doctor, said that due to the intense fighting victims' families and "Islamic State" (IS) fighters buried people in the quickest and simplest way possible, digging shallow graves and wrapping bodies in blankets.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Raising the dead

The digging stops and a dusty blanket is pulled out from the ground. Three corpses are wrapped together inside. "In this grave we have three children wrapped together; the first one is about 2-months old, the second is 2-years old, and the third is 3-years old," Dr. Assad told DW.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Basic identification

The local team members are volunteers who do not have forensic expertise. The on-site identification procedure of bodies includes the exhumation date, identification number, gender and general state of the body.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Laid to rest

Dr. Assad said the people here died of conflict-related injuries; those crushed by rubble, killed by shrapnel, IS sniper fire or coalition airstrikes. But he also remembers one unusual case. "There was what appeared to be an execution, where the head was placed separately from the body."

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Searching for relatives

Mohammed Saleh, a Raqqa local, has come to search for the body of his dead brother. He leads Dr. Assad's team to where his brother’s body is supposedly buried. The team digs and finds a blanket. Mohammed points out to a recovered body; he believes it’s his brother.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Looking for a sign

Mohammed Saleh asks for a razor to cut the trousers from the recovered body. He says his brother had a metal plate in the fibula. The team examines the leg but no metal plate is found.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Solitary thoughts

Mohammed Saleh shares his thoughts before walking away to have some time for himself. "Without Daesh's [the Arabic name for IS — the ed.] presence in this place the international coalition airstrikes would have not taken place. Fate led to my brother's death," he told DW.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Little outside support

Dr. Assad says the group has received little or no support from international non-governmental organizations. With Raqqa currently under US-led coalition control, NGOs are keeping a low profile to avoid stoking tensions between the Syrian government and Turkey.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Taking a break

Dr. Assad's team takes a tea break. One of the team's members, Ibrahim Assad, has been digging for the past three months. He says he’s come here to help to bring some humanity to these bodies and to give the families the opportunity to provide their loved ones with a proper burial.

Raqqa's mass graves — digging in the dirt

Just one of many

According Dr. Assad's estimates there are about 150 bodies here. There were instances where three to four blankets were found in a trench on top of each other. At a second site, a football pitch, the team expects to find some further 200 bodies, while a third site is estimated to have around 500.

Russia: US has no Syria strategy

Moscow responded by accusing the administration of President Donald Trump of lacking "a comprehensive approach" to the Syrian conflict and called Idlib "a hornets' nest of terrorists."

In light of the strikes, Turkey announced that it was moving tanks to its border with Syria and reinforcing its observation posts near Idlib.

First seized from the government in March 2015, Idlib and the surrounding area is the last important chunk of territory in Syria held by rebels. Russia has been bombing the area intermittently since September 2015. 

'The biggest catastrophe in decades'

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told DW that the looming battle for Idlib could prove to be the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. 

"It could be the biggest humanitarian catastrophe we've seen for decades — certainly the biggest in the 21st century," Lowcock said, having just returned from Syria. 

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Lowcock described how there are between 3 and 4 million people in the southwestern city, many of them refugees from other party of Syria, living in tents with no means of protection from shelling.

es/msh (AP, Reuters)