With Syria’s rebels nearing defeat after seven years at war, President Bashar al-Assad’s army says it is turning its firepower against their final stronghold. The target, Idlib province, is largely controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked militant group.
Caught in the middle are millions of civilians with nowhere left to run.
Public pronouncements by Syrian and Russian officials foreshadow a devastating attack if diplomacy and the pleas of aid groups for restraint are not heeded. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Idlib’s militants as “festering abscesses” that should be “liquidated.” A day later, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said his government’s forces would go “all the way.”
Using unusually urgent language, the United Nations’ Syria envoy, Staffan di Mistura, warned Thursday that the people of Idlib province are facing the prospect of a “perfect storm.”
A defeat of the armed opposition in the sprawling northern region of Idlib would effectively end Syria’s civil war. With rebels defeated across the rest of Syria, Assad’s government has implied that an all-out offensive there is imminent. In public, Russia is also ratcheting up the pressure, adding to its flotilla of warships in the Mediterranean Sea and escalating its rhetoric.
Idlib province is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, a hard-line group affiliated until recently with al-Qaeda. As well as being the strongest military force, HTS has also targeted civilian institutions, using arrests, threats and assassinations to bring them in line.
A major battle in Idlib could have disastrous humanitarian consequences. After seven years of war, the once quiet province is now bursting with some 3 million people, more than half displaced from elsewhere in Syria. With Turkey’s border sealed shut to the north, those people could have nowhere to run. [Continue reading…]