The escalation of hostilities in north-eastern Syria once again illustrates the urgent need for the international community to take decisive political action that will set a stronger standard for civilian protection from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

There is a clear and familiar pattern of civilian harm when explosive weapons, especially those whose effects extend over a wide area, are used in areas where civilians live and work. Where towns and are bombed and shelled, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of conflict. They will be killed and injured, displaced, their food supplies, healthcare, sanitation and education disrupted and homes, vital infrastructure and communities destroyed. Suffering is not just immediate and local, but widespread and long-term: victims and survivors of explosive weapons can face long-term challenges of disability, psychological harm, and social and economic hardship.

This pattern of harm is unacceptable, yet it is unfolding once again in north-eastern Syria where, on 9 October, Turkey began an offensive, bombarding positions along the length of its Syrian border with airstrikes and heavy artillery and initiating a ground-incursion. The Turkish intervention followed a surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that Turkey would launch an operation in the region – action it has repeatedly threatened but previously not undertaken – and that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area”. Turkey’s cross-border offensive comes just days after over 130 states – including Turkey, Syria and the U.S. – gathered in Vienna to discuss the grave impact on civilians and infrastructure of airstrikes, shelling and bombardment of populated areas and ways to address it. The International Network on Explosive Weapon (INEW), which Article 36 coordinates, urges all parties in the region to prioritise the protection of civilians including by stopping the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

The region is currently home to large numbers of already-vulnerable civilians displaced by the conflict in Syria – the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reports that at least 1.8 million were already in need of humanitarian assistance in north-east Syria, with nearly 1 million of those in acute need. Fifteen aid agencies, including several members of INEW have warned of an escalating humanitarian crisis on the heels of the bombardment of border towns and cities.

© UNOCHA

In Syria, the humanitarian consequences of new military operations have been immediate and devastating. Major population centres along the border, including as far east as the city of Qamishli, have been struck by airstrikes and artillery. Alongside reports of civilian deaths and injuries (including those compiled by Airwars), UN OCHA has estimated at least 160,000 people were  displaced from the areas around Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, where the Turkish incursion began, in the first few days, while the World Health Organization (WHO) puts that number closer to 200,000. The International Rescue Committee has warned that if airstrikes and ground attacks continue another 200,000 are at risk of being displaced.  Human Rights Watch has warned that the offensive, which relies heavily on the use of explosive weapons, risks “straining a humanitarian response that is already at its limits”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and humanitarian organisations in the region are already reporting the severe interruption of essential services including water supplies and medical facilities. Shelling and active hostilities near Ein Issa camp, host to around 13,000 people previously displaced, has resulted in the suspension of key provisions including water and bread. The Allouk water station in Ras al-Ain, which services over 400,000 people including several displacement camps, was rendered inoperable after being hit, limiting access to safe water and sanitation services and increasing the risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases. Already-weakened health services in the region have been further devastated by escalating insecurity. The WHO has expressed grave concern over the rapidly escalating conflict in the region, noting that attacks have rendered several hospitals, including the national hospitals in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, out of service, as well as several medical clinics and health centres. Those that remain open are overwhelmed with casualties. Security developments have forced health professionals to flee and partners to suspend their work, further disrupting access to essential health care services. This includes international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which has suspended most of its activities in north-eastern Syria and evacuated all international staff.

Image: © Save the Children

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