Idlib is the New Face of Conflict. The World Needs to Catch Up | Opinion

The scenes and stories from Idlib province in Syria should be shocking – but it seems from the lack of reaction by western governments that we have been numbed. Children freezing to death in -11 degree temperatures after being bombed by their own government should never be normalized. But in fact the type of conflict we are seeing in Idlib is the new face of conflict. Diplomats and humanitarians need to catch up.

The assault on Idlib is not just another turn in the Syrian conflict. It is intended to be one of the last. And the statistics show that it is the most brutal at least as measured by the flight of victims. 900,000 people have fled since December, over 100,000 in the past seven days alone, and over 300,000 still risk joining them. This is the largest civilian displacement since the conflict started nine long years ago. Among those forced to flee are 30 local IRC staff who, despite being displaced themselves, have continued their work helping others in the areas in which they've relocated.

There is a current UN Inquiry into the attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure. But it is limited to a mere seven incidents and it remains unclear if the findings will be made public and if the report will name perpetrators. So, it is not providing a credible deterrent to the current escalation of violence, or the ongoing attacks on civilians and the facilities they depend on for their survival. In the past few weeks alone, the IRC and the organizations it works with have had to suspend operations in a number of health facilities and relocate an entire fleet of ambulances. Faced with ongoing and deliberate targeting of aid workers, medical staff and their facilities, it is legitimate to fear that there will be no doctors and nurses left to help spare life and limb on the ground.

The catastrophe in Idlib is a symptom of the utter failure of diplomacy and abandonment by the international community of Syrian civilians. But it also foreshadows an even darker trend towards an Age of Impunity—an era characterized by the total disregard for the rule of law and an equally grave deficit of international diplomacy, which allows the suffering of civilians to continue unabated. These changes create greater risks for civilians and aid workers and increase the likelihood that we'll be dealing with the repercussions for a generation. The danger is that Syria becomes not just a disaster, but a precedent for a new normal of brutal, divisive, contagious conflict—a testament to a global shift in the waging of war in four key ways.

First and foremost is where the conflict is taking place—in crowded urban areas, not the hills of Verdun, the fields of Gettysburg, or the deserts of Kuwait. The urbanization of war has put more civilians at risk, not just from the direct harms of bullets and shrapnel, but from the indirect impacts of airstrikes and artillery attacks on health facilities, water and sanitation systems, bakeries, and housing—all of which have been targeted in the most recent Idlib offensive. This is a major reason why the conflict in Syria has displaced more than 11 million people, and it represents a significant shift from wars of previous generations. Since 1945 an average of 5 people were displaced for every one person killed. In Syria that ratio has been 25 to 1.

Second, the battlefield in Syria is increasingly crowded, filled by non-state actors like the constellation of armed opposition groups, militant and sanctioned organizations, and other forces backed by foreign powers—some of whom are also directly present in Syria. The involvement of so many groups, more than 100 in Syria according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, has fractured the battlefield geographically with so many different groups controlling different territory, but also hierarchically given the often unclear chain of command structure within each group. For civilians living in Syria, this means fewer areas of stable control as groups compete and fight over territory, and a more complicated environment to navigate, with competing allegiances and constantly shifting alliances.

Third, conflicts are lasting longer. The large presence of foreign militaries has made the conflict deadlier for civilians due to the increased firepower they bring, as demonstrated by widespread Russian air strikes on cities like Idlib. But the internationalization of this war has also made the conflict last much longer. It is unlikely the conflict would have lasted this long without the surge of support in the form of arms, money—and sometimes direct support—from regional and international powers. We are approaching the tenth year of this conflict, which means many of those 11 million displaced Syrians have been without a home for nearly a decade. According to David Armitage in his book Civil Wars, this is the new norm.

Fourth, the protracted nature of the conflict in Syria, along with the proliferation of armed groups with few ties to the laws of war and the involvement of multiple foreign militaries who have shown little regard for war crimes or civilian casualties, have made the conflict an avatar for the Age of Impunity. This is an era in which civilians are seen as fair game for armed combatants, humanitarians are viewed as an impediment to military tactics and therefore unfortunate but expendable collateral, and investigations of and accountability for war crimes are considered an optional extra for state as well as non-state actors. In Syria, far too many of the militaries, militias and mercenaries involved have learned the dangerous lesson that "the rules are for suckers."

The danger is that Syria becomes not just a disaster, but a precedent for a new normal of brutal, divisive, contagious conflict. If the UN Security Council remains gridlocked, and the UN frozen out of peacemaking by the Astana group of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, then the UN Secretary General should go himself to meet the people of Idlib, shuttle from Ankara to Moscow and back to New York, and urge the Presidency of the Security Council (currently Belgium) to summon Foreign Ministers to New York for serious talking. This is not normal, but neither is the situation on the ground. The UN Human Rights Council is meeting this week for the first time in 2020 and the high level segment this week with Foreign Ministers present is a critical opportunity for an emergency meeting on the situation in Idlib. However, it is unclear whether this dire situation will even be discussed, let alone a resolution calling for a ceasefire adopted.

The immediate priorities should be a ceasefire, strengthening humanitarian access, and delivering accountability for the crimes committed and civilians needlessly suffering. Beyond the immediate emergency, accountability not impunity needs to be restored as the watchword of the age. NGOs and businesses can help with that—in the way the German NGO the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has issued indictments under the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights crimes in Syria.

For too many it is too late in Syria. The very least we can do to honor their memory is build a new system of prevention and accountability that makes "never again" more than a hollow slogan.

David Miliband is CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is a member of the Global Emergency Response Coalition, who has launched an appeal this week to raise funds for the Syria crisis. The Global Emergency Response Coalition is a lifesaving humanitarian alliance made up of leading U.S.-based international aid organizations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​