The UN envoy to Syria has warned of a “perfect storm” in north-west Syria if the government goes ahead with its threatened offensive against rebels. Staffan de Mistura called for humanitarian corridors to be set up to allow civilians to be evacuated temporarily.
The BBC reports that with rebels defeated in most of Syria, such an offensive could prove to be the last big battle of the civil war. Russia, the government’s main military ally, has also stepped up its rhetoric.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “terrorists” must be wiped out in Idlib, accusing them of using civilians as human shields.
Both he and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, accused rebels of preparing to stage a chemical attack in Idlib in order to blame pro-government forces and draw new US military retaliation.
Mr de Mistura said both the government and the rebels had the ability to make chlorine-based chemical weapons.
AP explains that after seven years of war, President Bashar Assad has largely quashed the popular revolt that erupted against his family’s decades-long rule in 2011, which was inspired by the Arab Spring protests that swept the region that year.
Idlib now amounts to the last refuge for the opposition, as well as the al-Qaida-linked insurgents that have fought alongside it.
President Bashar Assad is determined to retake Idlib, and has vowed to eventually bring all of Syria back under his government’s control.
At one point, the opposition controlled parts of Syria’s largest cities and most of the territory around Damascus, the capital. But Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad in 2015, and Iran has sent thousands of military advisers and allied militiamen to aid his forces. In the last year alone, the government has forced its opponents out of Damascus, Homs, Daraa, and Quneitra, four provinces and cities that were longtime opposition strongholds.
As government forces advanced, they offered residents and one-time opponents the choice either to reconcile with Assad’s rule or board buses for Idlib, where al-Qaida-linked groups have eclipsed the moderate opposition.
Tens of thousands of people chose to leave to Idlib, fearing they could be face imprisonment, forced conscription, or worse at the hands of government forces.
Now they have nowhere left to turn, after other opposition pockets have collapsed, and Turkey has largely sealed its borders to new refugees.
The U.S. State Department has said it will hold Moscow, an ally of Damascus, responsible if government forces use chemical weapons in the battle for Idlib.
The U.N. says a battle for Idlib would cause a humanitarian catastrophe. With Turkey closing its borders to new refugees, it is unclear where civilians might go. Many are already living in camps in Idlib amid dire conditions, with 2 million in need of humanitarian aid.
The leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey are slated to meet next week in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, where many are hoping for a deal to avert a calamitous battle over Idlib.
In the meantime, the government is amassing its forces around the province, and Russia has positioned at least 10 warships and two submarines off the coast, according to Russian media reports.
If a campaign does proceed against Idlib, it is likely to follow the formula set in previous battles. Russian and Syrian warplanes would launch wave after wave of devastating airstrikes, before government forces besiege towns and cities, forcing residents to surrender or starve.