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Syrian and Russian warplanes pound Idlib before talks

Updated September 05, 2018

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A MAN uses dirt to put out a fire at the scene of a reported air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur in the Idlib province on Tuesday.—AFP
A MAN uses dirt to put out a fire at the scene of a reported air strike in the district of Jisr al-Shughur in the Idlib province on Tuesday.—AFP

BEIRUT: Russian and Syrian jets hammered a major rebel stronghold on Tuesday, a war monitor said, days before leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey meet to discuss an expected Syrian government offensive that could spark a humanitarian disaster.

The warplanes bombarded countryside around Jisr al-Shughour on the western edge of the rebel enclave of Idlib after weeks of lull, killing 13 civilians but no fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel source.

For President Bashar al-Assad, the defeat of rebels in the northwestern pro­­­vince would mean breaking the last major stronghold of active military op­­position to his rule, though other large areas also remain beyond his control.

Half of Idlib’s 3 million people have already fled there from their homes in other parts of Syria, according to the United Nations, and any offensive there threatens new displacement and human misery.

It could also spark a wider confrontation with Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, whose army has set up observation posts along the Idlib front lines to deter fighting.

Turkey’s Hurriyet daily reported that Turkish armed forces were reinforcing the Idlib border with M60 tanks, and Reuters television filmed a convoy heading towards the border.

Tuesday’s air strikes came hours after US President Donald Trump warned Assad and his allies not to “recklessly attack” Idlib, saying that hundreds of thousands might die.

The Kremlin on Tuesday dismissed his comments, describing Idlib, where jihadist insurgent factions dominate, as a “nest of terrorism”. Iran echoed that theme. “Terrorist groups [in Idlib] have mixed with the people,” said Abbas Araqchi, deputy foreign minister, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. “They are using people as human shields.”

Turkey fears a major assault on Idlib could send a new wave of refugees towards its border, and wants to maintain a “de-escalation agreement” that it struck with Russia and Iran last year.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was discussing joint action with Russia to target terrorist groups in Idlib while avoiding a full-scale offensive. Ankara last week added Tahrir al-Sham to its list of designated terrorist groups.

“We went to Moscow with our defence minister and intelligence chief. Now talks are ongoing between our soldiers, intelligence agencies and foreign ministries about what kind of steps could be taken,” he said in Ankara late on Monday.

Ankara has said the presence of radical groups in Idlib is being used a pretext for a military operation. When he was in Rus­sia in late August, Cavu­soglu said “we have to differentiate terrorists from other people”, but added that it was also important to eliminate Russia’s concerns.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2018