Tag Archives: Idlib

At least 16 killed by airstrikes in Idlib, Syria war monitor says

Airstrikes on rebel-controlled northwestern Syrian killed at least 16 people Tuesday, including two students and two teachers, opposition activists said, as government forces closed in on a town considered a symbol of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The violence came as Turkey’s president announced that a Russian delegation would arrive the following day to resume talks aimed at easing tensions in the northwest Idlib region. The area is the country’s last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian government’s military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with nearly one million people displaced from their homes since Dec. 1.

Most of them are now crowding areas close to the border with Turkey, living in camps, shelters, abandoned homes and in open fields. It is the largest single displacement of Syria’s war, now in its ninth year.

In response to the upsurge in violence, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN has launched a revised appeal for $ 500 million US to assist at least 1.1 million people in need. He said discussions are under way with Turkey double the number of trucks crossing the border with humanitarian aid from 50 to 100.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said no consensus was reached for a four-way meeting next month between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey meant to address the crisis. Erdogan said that Russia’s Vladimir Putin may still come to Turkey next week for a bilateral meeting, but the Kremlin has so far not confirmed a March 5 visit by the Russian president to Turkey.

Tensions have been running high between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the war in Syria. The Syrian government offensive has shattered a fragile ceasefire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in 2018 and Turkey has threatened military action unless Syrian forces retreat to positions they held before the advance by the end of February.

“Russia supports Syria at the highest level,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for a visit to Azerbaijan. “Even if they deny it, we have evidence. We are forced to be in this fight.”

A man helps an injured youth in the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib on Tuesday. (Mohammed Al-Rifai/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkish officials had reported small progress in two previous rounds of Turkey-Russia meetings but said the results were not satisfactory.

Turkey had set up a dozen observation posts as part of the 2018 agreement, many of which are now behind Syrian government lines. Ankara also sent thousands of additional troops into Idlib in recent weeks and has frequently engaged in military exchanges with Syrian troops.

At least 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes this month during the Syrian government’s push on the last rebel stronghold.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference at the State Department on Tuesday that the Syrian government’s offensive “only heightens the risk of conflict with our NATO ally, Turkey,” adding that the U.S. was working together with Turkey “on seeing what we can do together.”

He called for a permanent ceasefire, saying “the regime will not be able to obtain military victory.”

Airstrikes in separate locations

The fighting appeared to intensify, however, with dozens of airstrikes reported Tuesday.

Opposition activists and a war monitor said at least 16 people were killed in Idlib province Tuesday. They included two students and two teachers who were killed in Idlib city when a school was struck with a cluster bomb-filled rocket, and 10 civilians who were killed in airstrikes on the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib province. The deaths were reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Idlib-based opposition activist Hadi Abdullah.

LISTEN l Front Burner, from Feb. 21, on the crisis in Idlib:

A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria’s Idlib province. Nearly one million people have been displaced since a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive began in December, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to ever-shrinking camps along the border with Turkey. Today on Front Burner, we talk to CNN senior correspondent Arwa Damon, who was just in Idlib, about what she saw on the ground. “These are families that have been displaced multiple times,” she tells Jayme. “What makes this time so much more different is that it’s almost as if there is a sense of finality to it … they’re going to reach a point where they can’t run anymore.” 22:01

To the south of Nairab, Syrian troops captured two new villages, raising to 10 the number of areas captured in the province since Monday, according to state media.

The capture of Maaret Tamater and Maaret Seen brings government forces closer to Kafranbel, a major opposition-held town that gained attention in the early years of the Syrian conflict during weekly anti-government protests because of humorous English-language banners carried by protesters.

The banners were initiated by anti-government journalist Raed Fares, who was shot dead in the town along with his friend Hammoud al-Juneid in November 2018. Fares was a harsh critic of Islamic militants that control much of Idlib.

In Damascus, one civilian was killed and two others were injured by bombs planted in two cars near the Umayyad square in the Syrian capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said. It was not immediately clear who the target was.

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UN Security Council hears of ‘unfolding humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria’s Idlib province

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkey’s border “under horrendous conditions” in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, the UN humanitarian chief said Wednesday.

Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has “overwhelmed” efforts to provide aid.

He said nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1, when the government offensive began — more than 500,000 of them children.

“Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

Lowock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces.

“I am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,” he said.

‘Tragic suffering’

UN special envoy Geir Pedersen echoed Secretary-General António Guterres’s expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation “and the tragic suffering of civilians.”

“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,” he said.

This combination of satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows an area near Kafaldin in northern Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border on Feb. 5, top, and the same area with a large number of refugee tents for internally displaced people on Feb. 16, bottom. The difference illustrates the rapid expansion of refugees as hundreds of thousands of civilians in the area scramble to escape an offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. (Maxar Technologies via The Associated Press)

Pedersen warned: “The potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.”

He said Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a ceasefire in Idlib, “can and must play a key role in finding a way to de-escalate the situation now,” though meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow in recent days and contacts between the two presidents have not produced results.

“To the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,” Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva.

‘Spare no effort’

The United States, United Kingdom, Germany and others stressed that three-way talks with Syria supporters Russia and Iran and opposition backer Turkey, which led to a de-escalation zone in Idlib, aren’t working.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula isn’t working, it’s now time for the UN to step in and “it’s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.”

“We have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council, to stop what is happening,” he said. “We must spare no effort.”

Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.

“If you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,” he said.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: “We will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria, which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.”

He defended the Astana process as playing “the key role,” saying that “there’s no other mechanism for a political dialogue.”

Nebenzia supported Pedersen’s efforts to get agreement from Syria’s government and opposition on an agenda so a constitutional committee can start discussing a new charter for the country, which is seen by many as a first step toward elections and formation of a new government.

“What needs to stop is protection of fighters, insurgents,” he said.

Britain’s ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russia and Syria need to stop “indiscriminate and inhumane attacks” in the northwest that are killing and injuring innocent civilians.

During closed consultations after the open meeting, French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said he proposed that the Security Council issue a statement on the escalating situation, but Russia blocked it.

According to council diplomats, the proposed statement called for a cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, but Russia insisted on an additional line that would have allowed the fight against “terrorists” to continue. That was unacceptable to the vast majority of council members, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.

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German foreign minister warns of humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib province

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib if fighting in Syria doesn’t stop, speaking Saturday after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavusoglu during the Munich Security Conference.

Maas urged Russia to place pressure, “on the Assad regime so that these attacks and fighting are stopped.” The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has killed hundreds of civilians, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Many of those who have fled have been forced to sleep outside during the bitterly cold winter, with the weather contributing to at least 10 deaths.

“I hope that the upcoming talks between Russia and Turkey next week will result in progress in these areas so that we are spared another humanitarian catastrophe there,” Maas said. 

Turkey said on Saturday it had fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib region in line with de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, warning it would take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern region. But their fragile co-operation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

Members of a family fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Hazano in the northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province on Feb.5, on their way northward toward the Turkish border amid an ongoing regime offensive. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib. The Kremlin also said Ankara had failed to neutralize militants there.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian advances in Idlib, and that Ankara had conveyed its position to Moscow during ongoing talks.

“We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor,” Oktay said. “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib. Some of our observation posts have fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime,” he said, referring to Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said later on Saturday that Turkey wants to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy, but will take other steps if necessary.

Syrians fleeing with their belongings pass through the town of Batabo in Aleppo province on Feb.5. They were making their way toward the Turkish border. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

He added that a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday to hold talks over Idlib and that he would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later in the day.

Iran, which also supports Assad, said last week it was ready to help Ankara and Damascus resolve their disputes.

Turkey-Russia talks

The escalation of violence in Idlib has also caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery fires by the Russian-supported government forces.

Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx from Idlib. It has poured more than 5,000 troops, several convoys of military vehicles and equipment to the region, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

As the Syrian government continued its offensive, Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara to tackle the dispute. Erdogan has also spoken on the phone twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Turkish troops were killed.

However, there was no sign of an agreement, with both sides accusing the other of failing to meet their responsibilities.

Turkey, a NATO ally with the alliance’s second-biggest army, has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdogan said earlier this week that the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.

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Idlib explained: Why war looms large over Syria's last rebel stronghold

Alarm bells are sounding as Syria and its Russian backers gear up for what many believe will be an all-out assault on the rebel-held province of Idlib, in the country's northwest.

Residents in the enclave — Syria's last major rebel-held territory — have taken to the streets to ask for international intervention. There are grave fears for Idlib's civilian population, mixed in, as it is in some parts, with rebel groups.

Aid agencies say an assault could spark a humanitarian crisis yet unseen in the seven-year-old civil war.

Here's a look at the situation in Idlib.

Why is Idlib so important now?

Idlib has essentially become a giant holding pen for remaining Syrian opposition fighters in the years since Russia's military intervention on behalf of Assad back in 2015.

What followed was a brutal, but patterned, approach that saw major rebel strongholds in other parts of the country destroyed one by one: Homs, Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa.

Enclaves were besieged, starved and bombed before the defeated rebels and their families were offered a one-way ticket out: surrender and a bus ride to another rebel-held territory of their choice.

Most wound up in Idlib.

A Syrian woman pushes a baby stroller loaded with produce from the market in Idlib. The city is home to nearly 3 million people, one-third of them already displaced from other parts of Syria. (Zein Al Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)

As such, it represents a tantalizing and potentially definitive prize for Assad as he seeks to fulfil his long-held pledge to take back "every inch" of Syria from rebel hands.

But Idlib province is home to nearly 3 million people, one-third of them already displaced from other parts of Syria.

If Syria proceeds with a major offensive, as it is threatening to do with Moscow's help, aid agencies warn of a "humanitarian catastrophe" not yet seen during the seven-year-old civil war.

Syria and Russia say Idlib is a "nest of terrorists" that must be destroyed.

Is an offensive inevitable?

At a summit in Tehran on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed to Syria and Russia's other major backer, Iran, to prevent Idlib from becoming a "lake of blood."

He got nowhere.

His appeals for a ceasefire were rejected by Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani, who said fighting terrorism in Idlib was inevitable.

A Syrian rebel fighter evacuated from the town of Dumayr, east of Damascus, holds his son while sitting in a bus on April 20, 2018. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has already been softening the ground. It resumed bombing targets in Idlib earlier this week after a 22-day pause — a pattern reminiscent of Russian tactics ahead of the fall of Aleppo in 2016.

Syrian forces are also said to be massing along Idlib's southern borders.

How many opposition fighters are in Idlib and who are they?

The U.S. military has estimated that as many as 30,000 militants are in the region, while the Russians say that more than 70 per cent of Idlib is controlled by "terrorists."

Ascribing militants to the various groups is a complicated matter.

The most powerful and influential is widely believed to be Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadi umbrella group associated with al-Qaeda and formerly known as al-Nusra Front.

The UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has estimated there are 10,000 al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Idlib, including a significant number of foreigners.

Turkey is also backing a number of Idlib-based militants opposed to the Assad regime and to HTS, including some hardline Islamist groups and members of the more moderate Free Syrian Army, making its intervention in Tehran especially complicated.

Sifting out rebel groups — particularly the hardcore jihadists — from the civilian population will be a complicated task.

Ankara also has a number of observer bases in Idlib as part of an earlier de-escalation plan brokered with Russia and Iran.

What about Washington?  

U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted that "if it's a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry. And the United States is going to get very angry too."

More specifically, the White House has issued a statement threatening to repeat attacks on Syrian targets if lines are crossed.

"Let us be clear," the statement said. "It remains our firm stance that if President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its allies will respond swiftly and appropriately."

In 2017, the U.S. launched a Tomahawk missile attack against a Syrian airbase near Homs after a suspected poison gas attack.

And in April of this year, the U.S., the United Kingdom and France launched more than 100 missiles in response to what they said was a chemical weapons attack on the opposition stronghold of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta.  

Is there any way out for the people of Idlib?

De Mistura, the UN envoy, is urging for more time to set up  humanitarian corridors for people anxious to leave the area.

With Idlib located in a northwest corner of Syria, many are afraid they'll have nowhere to go but into the arms of an unforgiving Syrian army or be pressed against a closed border with Turkey, which is fearful of another flood of refugees across its frontiers. (And maybe further beyond again, to Europe.)

An estimated 3.5 million people displaced by the violence in Syria have already sought refuge in Turkey.

A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria on Sept. 3, 2018. U.S. officials said this week they had evidence the Syrian government was preparing to use chemical weapons in what's believed to be an imminent assault on the rebel enclave. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

It is possible that the people of Idlib may try to flee further north, to other territory jointly controlled by Turkey and some Syrian rebels.

There is also speculation that any offensive may begin in small stages, with a focus on retaking control of strategic roads.

But with many of the region's residents bracing for the worst, those who can are moving their families into bomb shelters or caves.

As de Mistura and many other seasoned Syrian watchers continue to warn, there are no more Idlib's to flee to.

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Intense air raids reported on edge of Syria's rebel-held Idlib

Syrian government and Russian warplanes on Saturday targeted the southern edge of Idlib province with an intense wave of airstrikes and shelling, activists and a war monitoring group said, ratcheting up the military pressure on the densely populated rebel-held bastion.

A war monitoring group and rescue workers said at least four people have been killed in the air raids against the last rebel stronghold in the country.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the airstrikes as the "most intense" since August when government forces began targeting the southern edge of Idlib province.

The organization recorded 68 air raids in the southwestern Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun, and other villages and towns in the province and in northern Hama.

It said at least four civilians were killed, including two children and a woman, most of them in Abdeen, a village west Khan of Sheikhoun.

The intense air raids came a day after Iran and Russia backed a military campaign in the rebel-held area despite Turkey's pleas for a ceasefire. Turkey has troops and 12 observations points that ring Idlib.

On Friday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country could no longer afford to take in any more refugees from Syria. He spoke during a summit with the leaders of Russia and Iran in Tehran.

Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the beginning of the seven-year war. Erdogan pledged in June to facilitate the return of refugees.

State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said the government was retaliating against overnight shelling from rebel-held areas on a government-held town in Hama province, south of Idlib. The shelling late Friday in Mhradah killed nine civilians, according to state media.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, left, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave a news conference after meeting in Tehran on Friday. The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey were meeting in the Iranian capital for a summit set to decide the future of Idlib province amid fears of a humanitarian disaster in Syria's last major rebel bastion. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/EPA-EFE)

But the government and Russian raids targeted a wide swath of rebel-held area in the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave that includes most of Idlib province and northern Hama province. Up to 30,000 rebel and jihadist fighters are thought to be entrenched in Idlib province.

The local council of Morek, a town that serves as a crossing between Hama and Idlib, sent an urgent appeal, asking Turkey for a quick solution. "We need a quick solution or our town will burn!" the official pleaded in an audio recording shared on social media groups.

Clashes in Kurdish-held region

Separately, clashes broke out in eastern Syria in Qamishli, a town close to the border with Turkey, between government and Kurdish security members. The Observatory said the clashes left 10 government security personnel and seven Kurdish fighters dead.

The town is run by Kurdish-led administrators and forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport. Clashes rarely erupt there over turf control and authority, and are usually a reflection of deepening political tension between the uneasy partners.

Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, said in a statement that a government patrol entered the areas controlled by the Kurdish militia in Qamishli and began arresting civilians, then shot at a Kurdish checkpoint sparking the gun battle. The Asayish said seven of its members and 11 government personnel were killed.

A journalist and resident of the area, Arin Sheikmos, said the government security troops went on an arrest campaign in Kurdish-controlled areas, detaining people it accuses of skipping compulsory military service. This prompted the clashes, which lasted no more than 20 minutes, Sheikmos said.

There was no immediate word about the clashes from the government.

The U.S-backed Kurdish administration has recently begun talking with the Syrian government — essentially seeking government recognition of its self-rule areas. But in recent days, the Damascus government announced it is holding local administration elections, including in Kurdish-ruled areas, undermining the negotiations and talk of Kurdish self-rule.

The Kurdish-led administration control nearly 30 per cent of Syria, mostly in the northeastern part of the country, including some of Syria's largest oil fields. They seized the territories, with the backing of the U.S-led coalition, after chasing out Islamic State militants.

With files from Reuters​

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1 million children at risk of harm if Syrian government attacks Idlib, UNICEF says

More than a million Syrian children are at risk of harm in the event of a government military assault on the rebel-held province of Idlib, UNICEF says.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's director of emergency programs, said Friday that the agency has drawn up contingency plans including providing clean water and nutritional supplies to some of the estimated 450,000 to 700,000 people who could flee an attack.

An estimated 2.9 million people live in the northern region of Idlib and half of them were already displaced from other areas in Syria as opposition supporters fled areas captured by government forces.

"It's more than one million kids.… When you hear the kind of military rhetoric about an offensive and all that, I think it's important to remember that it's not just against a group of armed men," Fontaine told Reuters in Geneva.

"It's actually a very large proportion of women and children who have no stake in it, and elderly men and others," he said, speaking after holding talks in Damascus this week with Faisal Mekdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister.

Assad preparing offensive

Idlib and surrounding areas are the last major enclave held by rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A source has told Reuters that Assad is preparing a phased offensive to regain the province.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday the Syrian government had every right to chase "terrorists" out of Idlib and that talks on establishing humanitarian corridors there were ongoing. Russia is Syria's main ally, along with Iran.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to try to delay the battle and called for humanitarian corridors to remove civilians.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's director of emergency programs, said Friday the agency anticipates the 'possible displacement of between 450,000 and 700,000' in the event of an attack on Idlib province. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Many families in Idlib have been uprooted multiple times and forced to flee as front lines shifted, Fontaine said.

"There's some children who have been displaced seven times already, going from one place to the other. It means that their coping mechanisms, their resilience is very drained at the moment so they are particularly vulnerable. That's a major concern obviously," he said.

If there is an assault, civilians would be expected to flee toward Aleppo or Hama and Homs, rather than to Turkey, he said.

"We are anticipating, there are scenarios of possible displacement of between 450,000 and 700,000 people on the move," Fontaine said. They include 400,000 possibly in the first week.

"We are not part of a discussion on humanitarian corridors at this stage. But I think what is important for us is that people who want to be able to move can move as long as they want to do it, and they do it in safety and security," Fontaine said.

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'The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake': UN Syria envoy expresses fears over Idlib

The United Nations calls on Russia, Iran and Turkey to forestall a battle in Syria's Idlib province that would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib that includes an estimated 10,000 fighters designated by the UN as terrorists, who he said belonged to the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda.

There could be no justification to use heavy weapons against them in densely populated areas, he said. Miscalculations could lead to unintended consequences, including the possible use of chemical weapons.

"Avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial," de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

"We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem for talks in Moscow on Thursday. Moualem said Syrian forces would try to avoid civilian casualties. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, said: "We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.

"I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them," he added, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Moualem said Syria would "go all the way" in their efforts in Idlib, but would try to avoid civilian casualties.

Militants 'a festering abscess': Lavrov

Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area in Syria, serving as what the UN has called a "dumping ground" for fighters and civilians evacuated from other battles. It is one of the areas that Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to "de-escalate" last year at a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But a source said Wednesday that Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as "a festering abscess."

"Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors?," de Mistura said, referring to Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The potential battlefield contains two crucial roads — transport arteries between major Syrian cities that the Syrian government argues must be made safe. De Mistura asked if it's necessary to create a "worst-case scenario" just to secure Syrian government access to the roads.

It would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could prove to be a "perfect storm," he said.

"The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days."

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