Turkey’s ongoing incursion into northeast Syria, which began Wednesday after President Donald Trump announced the surprise withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northern border area, has already become a humanitarian crisis.
The fighting has forced more than 130,000 people to flee their homes, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who in a statement on Sunday estimated that up to 400,000 civilians in the Syrian conflict zone may require aid and protection in the coming period, Reuters reports. A human rights monitor has claimed Turkey-backed proxy forces summarily executed nine civilians, including a female Kurdish politician.
Turkey claims its objective is to sweep the Kurdish militia group leading the formerly U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) —which it regards as indistinguishable from the militant Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—from its southern border. But U.S. lawmakers have accused Trump of leaving America’s Kurdish allies to the “slaughter.”
Trump has denied greenlighting any operation and has threatened Ankara with “very powerful” sanctions. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS’ Face the Nation program on Sunday that Turkey “appears to be” committing war crimes, adding that all American troops would withdraw from northern Syria because of the danger of getting caught in crossfire.
On Friday evening, TIME met with U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock in Gaziantep, near Turkey’s southwestern border with Syria where he had been inspecting a cross border aid operation.
In an interview edited for length and clarity, Lowcock discussed how the new front in Syria’s complex war is exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation, and urged Turkey to “live up to assurances” made to the U.N. to protect civilians in harm’s way.
TIME: How many people are at risk of being displaced in northeast Syria? Where are those who have already fled going? And what is the U.N. doing to assist them as they seek safety?
Mark Lowcock: Our assessment, which I have corroborated with the Turks, is that there are about 800,000 people in the 32-km zone along the border. Those that are moving are mostly moving from the towns in the middle of the zone, and they are mostly moving south. They are largely going to friends and family, in many cases to Hasekah [in Syria’s far northeast] and some other towns. We had already developed contingency plans to, for example, provide food for up to 650,000 people for a month or two. We’ve been operating across the northeast for quite a while and we are used to situations evolving.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister has made assurances the operation will be restricted to the so-called safe zone. Are you confident Turkey will stick to its stated objective?
We’ve listened to what Turkey has said about its intent. We’ve called for restraint and de-escalation and for people to recognize Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, for people to comply with international humanitarian law. I have assurances from the Turkish authorities on their intention, in their words, to give maximum importance to the protection of civilians and humanitarian concerns. So, it’s up to them to live up to those assurances.
[On Sunday officials in Ankara signaled that Turkey’s offensive may go beyond the 20-mile zone]
There are fears that ISIS prisoners and sympathizers could be freed as a result of the offensive. Are you seeing evidence of that on the ground?
We’ve been concerned about residual Daesh [ISIS] elements for a while and we’ve expressed concern about the position of both civilians and former fighters held in camps at the UN Security Council. Obviously, the current operation raises questions about the security of those camps, which have been essentially under the management of Kurdish authorities.
One thing we would like to see is for those countries whose nationals are for example in Al Hol [a prison camp in Northeast Syria that holds nearly 70,000 people, including thousands of ISIS family members]—and the people in Al Hol are women and children, mostly under 12 years old—to take responsibility for their citizens. We understand that’s difficult, but the world needs to think about its legal responsibilities, its moral responsibilities and the long-term implications of leaving those people where they are.
[Over the weekend, hundreds of ISIS families and supporters escaped from a holding camp in northern Syria]
Even before this offensive commenced, Syria was in a dire situation. There are 1.8 million people in need of assistance and protection in northeast Syria and 2.8 million in North West. How did this perception the war is over come about?
How the perception came about, I don’t know. We’re seeing not just problems in the northwest and northeast, we’re seeing residual problems from Daesh in various parts of the Euphrates valley, we’re seeing signs of disturbances in the south. We’re seeing lots of challenges.
The truth is that Syria has been less in the news in 2019 than some earlier years. For two reasons: First, existing crises—Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, northeast Nigeria—are getting worse. Second, there are new crises, so the world’s attention has been on some other things.
The U.N.’s cross-border operations may not be renewed at the end of the year, what would that mean for the millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance?
A failure to renew the mandate for the U.N. cross-border operation, which reaches all those millions of people in the northwest, would create an immense humanitarian problem. Those people are essentially entirely reliant for secure access to food, medical consumables, books that appear in schools, spare parts for water cisterns, for everything basically, on the cross-border operation. It’s a very high priority to sustain that operation; it requires an agreement by the U.N. Security Council, which means nine votes in favour and no vetoes.
Are you able to get aid to Syrians in areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s government?
Most people we’re reaching every month are in government-controlled parts of Syria. A lot that works well but there are places under government control we’d like better access to. They’re especially places that have more recently come under government control, for example in northern rural Hama and Eastern Ghouta.
Do you think Assad is restricting humanitarian aid in these places, to punish people who resisted the regime?
It’s certainly easier for us to get to places that have been under government control for a long time. As for why it’s more difficult for us to get to other places, I think is a question you need to pose in Damascus.
There are ongoing humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, Xinjiang, Myanmar and elsewhere. Is the international community losing its ability to check gross humanitarian abuses?
There is a paradox: for most people on the planet, life is still getting a little bit better, year-on-year. But if you’re in the two percent of the world’s population, 150 million that it’s my job to worry about, caught up in these humanitarian crises, life is not getting better. And that number is growing. It grew by about 15% this year.
Why is that? Firstly, it’s a commentary on the state of global geopolitics. Some of the issues that we’re dealing with, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago would have been calmed down before they’d got out of control by more effective collaboration.
Secondly it is to do with the impact of climate change. A lot of the new issues that we are dealing with are droughts, like the ones in southern Africa and the horn of Africa. Or huge storms, like the Bahamas and Mozambique.
So, there are some underlying reasons why humanitarian needs are growing. They are all amenable to being addressed by human action. Human beings can deal with these problems and it will be a good idea for them to do so.