Across the globe, fears mount over impending Idlib bloodbath

Across the globe, fears mount over impending Idlib bloodbath
An international chorus of rights groups and governments is pleading the Syrian regime and its allies to resist launching an offensive to retake Syria's last rebel-held enclave of Idlib.
5 min read
05 September, 2018
One million children are at risk in Syria's Idlib [Getty]

International calls mounted on Wednesday to avoid a "massacre" by regime forces in Syria's last rebel-held province of Idlib, two days before a summit between key powers backing the government and opposition.

Troops have been massing on the edges of the northwestern province on the border with Turkey for weeks, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster on a scale not yet seen in Syria's seven-year conflict.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday was the latest to warn Damascus against an all-out offensive against a region the United Nations says is home to nearly three million people.

"God forbid, a serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles there," said Erdogan, whose country has supported Syrian rebels.

He spoke two days before he is set to meet the presidents of regime backers Iran and Russia in Tehran to discuss the future of the province.

Global concern has risen in recent days over a threatened regime assault to oust rebels and jihadists from Idlib province and surrounding areas, the last major chunk of Syria still in opposition hands.

On Tuesday, the UN peace envoy for Syria urged Erdogan and Russia's President Vladimir Putin to speak on the phone before Friday's summit.

Staffan de Mistura called for efforts "to avoid that the last probably major battle of the Syrian territorial conflict... ends in a bloodbath".

'Human tragedy'

More than half of Idlib is controlled by jihadists from Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), while much of the rest is held by rebels backed by Turkey. 

The regime holds a small southeastern sliver.

The United Nations and aid groups have warned a military campaign could spark one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in a war that has already killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions.

Some 2.9 million people live in Idlib and surrounding areas, among them one million children.

Many are rebels and civilians who were bussed out of their hometowns in other parts of the country that have come back under regime control.

Saturday saw mass protests as civilians took to the street in support of the opposition, demanding the end to the regime offensive.

HTS controls Idlib's Bab al-Hawa border crossing, through which an estimated 85 percent of humaniatarian cargo passes through. An influx of refugees or international pressure may cause Turkey to shut this crossing, putting thousands of civilians at risk.

On Monday evening, US President Donald Trump also warned against a full scale assault on Idlib, which he said could trigger a "human tragedy".

Turkey, Russia and Iran last year designated Idlib a so-called "de-escalation zone", but that deal did not cover former al-Qaeda affiliate HTS.

On Tuesday, Russian warplanes resumed airstrikes on Idlib after a 22-day pause.

Air raids across the province killed at least 13 civilians, including six children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Moscow said four of its jets "inflicted strikes by high-precision weapons" on targets belonging to HTS.

On Wednesday, regime artillery and rocket fire targeted several areas of the province including the HTS-held town of Jisr al-Shughur, the Britain-based war monitor said. 

President Bashar al-Assad's regime has retaken large swathes of the country from rebels and jihadists since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015.

'Pocket of terrorism'

Russian planes are based at the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, a coastal regime stronghold adjacent to Idlib.

Moscow has accused armed groups in Idlib of sending weaponised drones to attack Hmeimim. 

On Wednesday, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib was the "subject of increased concern and worry" and was the focus of a flurry of diplomacy. 

People cannot bear the consequences of yet another offensive using prohibited tactics such as starvation of civilians and indiscriminate bombardment

Just a day earlier, Peskov had slammed Idlib as a "pocket of terrorism", and said "Syrian armed forces are getting ready to solve this problem".

Friday's summit in Tehran between key power brokers Erdogan, Putin and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is expected to determine the scope and timing of any assault on Idlib.

Speaking of the summit, Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, said that the lives of millions of people in Idlib now rested in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran.


“The shocking civilian death tolls and war crimes witnessed recently in other parts of Syria such as eastern Aleppo city, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa must not be repeated in Idlib. It is essential that all parties to the conflict do not attack civilians, grant safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the fighting and attacks, and ensure unimpeded access to humanitarian relief for all civilians in need in Idlib," Hadid said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The humanitarian situation in Idlib - which is currently hosting some 700,000 internally displaced people on top of its two million residents - is already dire. People have little access to basic services such as healthcare, education and clean water and the vast majority rely on humanitarian aid.

"People cannot bear the consequences of yet another offensive using prohibited tactics such as starvation of civilians and indiscriminate bombardment," Hadid added.

A UN Security Council meeting is also set to be held the same day to discuss Idlib, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said.

On Tuesday, she warned against the use of any chemical weapons in Idlib, after the White House pledged to "respond swiftly and appropriately" to any such attack.

Since the start of the conflict in 2011, Assad's regime has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons, including in its battle this year to retake the former rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Rescue workers accused regime forces of using "poisonous chlorine gas" in the town of Douma in April that killed more than 40 people.

In response, the United States, France and Britain unleashed missiles on three regime chemical weapons facilities.

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