Warplanes Strike Syria's Rebel-Held Idlib Region

Hugh Fox
September 7, 2018

The situation in Idlib, the insurgents' only remaining major stronghold, is an immediate issue as President Bashar al-Assad's forces, backed by Russian Federation and Iran, prepare for what could be the conflict's last decisive battle.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018. "Assad's brutal regime - backed by Russian Federation and Iran - can not continue to attack and terrorize Syria's citizens".

Erdogan will also hold bilateral talks with Putin and Rouhani.

An estimated 10,000 Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are among those rebels, and Idlib is also home to about 3 million civilians - almost half of them displaced from other parts of Syria.

For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to completing what they see as a military victory in the civil war after Syrian troops recaptured almost all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.

Jeffrey described the situation in Idlib as "very dangerous" and said Turkey was trying to avoid an all-out Syrian government offensive.

Turkey backs numerous rebel groups in the province but recently moved toward its negotiating partners in declaring that the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, is a "terrorist organization" that should be eliminated.

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The area in northwest Syria is home to some 3 million people - the majority of whom were displaced from other regions - as well as an array of Sunni rebels dominated by Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda.

Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a senior aide in the Foreign Ministry, said the presidents would seek a compromise and that "Turkey and Iran are sufficiently mature politically to facilitate such a compromise".

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes, which it believed were Russian, struck the southern countryside of Idlib and a village in nearby Hama province.

Assad's government has been massing thousands of troops in preparation for an assault. Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilizing areas it now holds in Syria.

Analyst Sam Heller with the International Crisis Group said there was some hope of a deal.

The White House on Tuesday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that if he uses chemical weapons against his people again, the United States and its allies "will respond swiftly and appropriately".

A USA envoy says Washington has "lots of evidence" that Syrian government forces are preparing to use chemical weapons against rebel-held Idlib province. Sources said he cautioned that he didn't want to hear in October that the military hadn't been able to fully defeat ISIS and needed to stay.

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The United Nations is ringing alarm bells, predicting that an assault on Idlib would likely set in motion a refugee calamity on a scale not yet seen during the seven years of Syria's civil war.

Erdogan has warned against such a catastrophic outcome, and has much at stake in efforts to prevent it at the Tehran summit.

He said the United States had repeatedly asked Russian Federation whether it could "operate" in Idlib to eliminate the last holdouts of Islamic State and other extremist groups. "There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib".

Iranian fighters have provided critical support for Assad throughout the war.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will host the trilateral summit in Tehran, with a focus on Syria.

Turkey, Russia and Iran a year ago designated Idlib a so-called "de-escalation zone", but that deal did not cover former Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS.

"There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict", Haley said in a statement Wednesday. Although America has some 2,000 troops and outposts in Syria, Trump has said he wants to pull those forces out after the war against the Daesh group dislodged the extremists from vast territories it once held there and in Iraq.

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