09/03/2018, 18.28
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As the Idlib offensive approaches, the Syrian Church is worried about civilians

With Russian backing, Syrian government forces are poised to attack the last rebel stronghold. For Card Zenari, everything must be done to avoid the worst. Vicar to Aleppo calls on the international community to find a solution. Yesterday, pope Francis made an appeal during the Angelus.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – The Syrian Catholic Church is very concerned about the safety of civilians as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support and Shia ground troops, prepare for an expected offensive against the last anti-Assad stronghold in Idlib, northern Syria, an area still held by jihadist forces, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The apostolic nuncio to Damascus and the vicar of the Latins of Aleppo hope that international community will be able to “find a solution to the conflict”.

They and others are also grateful that  Pope Francis issued another appeal on behalf of Syria and its people. The pontiff made a heartfelt plea in yesterday’s Angelus, calling on the international community to avoid another "humanitarian catastrophe" in Idlib, from where the "winds of war" are blowing.

The situation is complicated by the power games involving Russia and Iran, who back the Syrian regime, and the Western powers that continue to defend the interests of the "rebels" and extremist groups, who are supported by Saudi Arabia and Gulf emirates.

The pontiff renewed his “appeal to the international community and to all the actors involved, to make use of the instruments of diplomacy, of dialogue and of negotiations, in respect of international humanitarian law, and to safeguard the lives of civilians.”

The planned assault on Idlib in the north comes after the government seizing Aleppo, eastern Ghouta and Douma. By taking areas that are still in rebel hands, Assad with Putin’s aid would control a strategic region and restore the situation to what it was before March 2011, i.e. before civil unrest turned into civil war and foreign powers coopeted local forces to fight a proxy war.

Only some Kurdish areas in the north and the mostly desert areas in central, eastern and southern Syria are still outside regime control. Some Islamic State fighters found refuge in the latter.

However, although experts and NGOs on the ground disagree on the numbers of people who might be affected by the Idlib campaign, with some estimating that fighting might trigger a new humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) of refugees.

Numbers aside, the prospect of a new exodus to Turkey worries President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, during his country’s recent election, repeatedly said that Syrian refugees would go home.

The Apostolic Nuncio to Damascus, Card Mario Zenari, is also grateful to the pontiff for his words, which “must be listened to, not commented”. Still, "The situation is keeping everyone on tenterhooks,” he noted. “Let’s s hope that a solution can be found.”

Many, including the United Nations, note great fears and tensions over Idlib. “We hope that something can be done and that the worst is avoided, especially for civilians,” the nuncio said. “This is what we hope."

The Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo of the Latins, Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, shares the nuncio’s concerns. For him, the priority "is the protection of civilians and their security." At the same time, "a solution must be found [for Idlib] because the jihadists cannot remain. This goes against peace and all logic."

Meanwhile, "The pontiff’s words give us courage and hope. He has always been close to us. We are proud of him. Muslims too have on several occasions welcomed his statements."

Lastly, the Apostolic Vicar hopes that "international community can find a solution to end threats and safeguard the local population.”

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