U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warned of a “perfect storm” facing the country’s Idlib province Thursday.
De Mistra expressed concern for the residents of Idlib as President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, which are backed by Russia, are expected to launch an offensive to clear militants from the al-Qaida and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — also known as the al-Nusra Front — militant groups from the area.
“While we are talking, there are some discussions taking place, and we hope that they will be fruitful but that doesn’t mean that we should be not worried, on the contrary, we are worried about any hurried escalation,” he said.
The Russian military amassed a fleet of at least 10 warships and two submarines off Syria’s northwest coast in preparation for an assault on the Idlib militants on Tuesday.
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Russia said the buildup was in response to possible airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against Syrian government forces and that rebels in Idlib were planning to stage chemical weapon attacks on civilians and blame Assad’s regime.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russia’s state-run Tass news agency that militants in Idlib were trying to hold civilians hostage to be used as human shields after talks with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir.
“Idlib is the last major stronghold of terrorists who are trying to gamble on the status of the de-escalation zone and hold civilians as human shields and bring the armed formations ready for negotiations with the Syrian government to their knees,” Lavrov said. “So, from all standpoints, this ‘abscess’ has to be liquidated.”
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De Mistra agreed the militant groups must be eliminated from the area, but called for more time to establish a method to keep the 2.9 million civilians in the province safe.
“There are ways to save people but we need the government to actually cooperate and provide guarantees for their own well-being with humanitarian presence,” he said.
He expressed particular concern for about 1.4 million people living in Idlib who have already been displaced at least once amid similar assaults in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta and would have nowhere else to go.
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“So far, every time there was a crisis and there was a conclusion of that one crisis, there was a place where many could opt to go, there is no other Idlib,” he said “It would be a tragic irony frankly, if at almost the end of what we consider at the moment in front of our eyes, a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians.”