An attempt to prevent a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Idlib, a city located in Syria’s north-western province, has failed. On Friday, September 7, Presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met at a trilateral summit in Tehran, to possibly negotiate a last-minute diplomatic deal to prevent further bloodshed in the ongoing Syrian conflict, failed to secure an agreement on a ceasefire deal. According to the coverage by Al Jazeera, the ceasefire proposed by Turkey was ultimately rejected by Russia and Iran, close allies of Damascus. This comes as the Syrian government forces, loyal to the Assad regime, are on the verge of launching a large-scale offensive on the city, described as the rebels’ last stronghold.
As reported by the Washington Post, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that, “Idlib isn’t just important for Syria’s future; it is of importance for our national security and for the future of the region.” “Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe. Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience… We don’t want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath,” he said.
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin countered, stating that, “We consider it unacceptable when, under the pretext of protecting the civilian population, they want to withdraw terrorists from being under attack, as well as inflicting damage on Syrian government troops,” Al Jazeera reported.
In an address to the UN Security Council on Friday, US ambassador Nikki Haley warned of “dire consequences” directed to Syria, including Russia and Iran. “The United States has been very clear, with Russia and with the broader international community: we consider any assault on Idlib to be a dangerous escalation of the conflict in Syria,” she said. However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has been quoted speaking to reporters on September 4th, regarding the sharing of Moscow’s concerns over the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib. “We share their concern about terrorism emanating from northern, northwest Syria. We absolutely agree with them there are terrorists in those locations and they need to be taken care of such that they don’t export terror around the world,” he said.
Idlib was one of four “de-escalation zones” approved by Turkey, Russia and Iran during the Astana talks in May 2017. The Syrian government has already retaken control of the other three zones – Homs; Eastern Ghouta; Deraa and Quneitra. Thus, thousands of displaced civilians and rebel groups have since relocated north to Idlib, approximately amounting up to a population of 3 million, however, among them are an estimated 10,000 members of the terrorist group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the al-Qaeda affiliate – Nusra Front.
Moscow and Tehran are determined to see the Syrian government regain control of Idlib and “cleanse” the region of terrorists. It is indeed a solution, but a problematic one, to try and separate the civilians and rebels from the Islamic militants through a diplomatic approach, as the groups share a common enemy and doubt the Syrian government’s credibility to hold their word, due to their use of indiscriminate tactics. Ankara ultimately stands to lose the most from the Idlib offensive, as the fighting would cause a further displacement of thousands to its border, which has been sealed. Turkey has already taken in 3.5 million refugees and has signaled the lack of capacity to continue doing so. UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has made a personal plea to Ankara and Moscow to find a “soft solution to this crisis.”
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