By Laura Onita
LONDON (Reuters) - The protection of Syrian civilians must be a global priority in any further intervention in the Middle East, a coalition of 40 human rights and aid agencies said on Tuesday.
Ahead of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York on Wednesday, the WithSyria coalition, including Save the Children and Amnesty International, urged world leaders to make clear they are on the side of civilians, irrespective of whom they support in the conflict.
The United States and Arab allies bombed Syria for the first time on Tuesday, killing dozens of Islamic State fighters and members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group, pursuing a campaign against militants in a war at the heart of the Middle East.
"We need world leaders this week to set out how they will fulfill their promise of February, and work together to end attacks on civilians and ensure people get the aid they need," David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and a member of the coalition, said in a statement.
A U.N. resolution passed in February called for an end to indiscriminate attacks by all sides on civilians in Syria, including schools, hospitals and shelters, and to ensure humanitarian aid would be delivered to the country.
"Caught up in a conflict not of their making, Syrians are dying every day," said Miliband. "As humanitarian agencies our mandate is to help them, but there are people we can’t reach because of the continuing attacks by all sides that also put our staff at risk."
The U.N. estimates that more than 191,000 people have died in Syria's three-year-old civil war and millions have been driven from their homes.
"The world is rightly horrified by recent developments in Iraq and Syria," Rola Hallam of Hand in Hand for Syria, a medical charity operating in some of the worst-affected areas in Syria, said in the statement.
"But a military strategy won't stop the daily distress for millions of Syrians who continue to suffer unimaginable pain, loss and fear each and every day," said Hallam.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday the U.S. and its allies must comply with the rules of war and respect international humanitarian law, primarily aimed at protecting civilians, in carrying out airstrikes on Islamist targets in Iraq and Syria.
The United Nations said it is bracing for up to 400,000 people to flee from northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, after Islamic State fighters captured villages from Kurds in recent days.
(Reporting By Laura Onita, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Tim Pearce)