- Russia resumed airstrikes Tuesday against rebel positions in Syria’s Idlib province.
- War observers believe the strikes could pave the way for an offensive by the Syrian government to retake Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.
- Heavy fighting in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian disaster, as the province is home to about 3 million people, about half of whom have already been displaced from other areas in Syria.
Russia has resumed airstrikes in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, a Syrian war monitor said Tuesday, ignoring a warning from U.S. President Donald Trump not to back an impending assault on the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.
Russian warplanes carried out roughly 30 strikes on at least a dozen rebel positions in western Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor.
It was the first time in three weeks that Russia has attacked rebel groups in Idlib, and it could signal the opening stage of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s planned offensive to retake the restive province.
The resumption of airstrikes came less than a day after Trump called on Assad to abandon plans to attack Idlib. He also warned Assad’s closest allies — Russia and Iran — against taking part in the offensive, which he said could lead to a “human tragedy.” (RELATED: Trump Gives Stark Warning To Russia, Syria — Dangles Threat Of Another Strike)
“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” Trump wrote on Twitter Monday night. “The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”
Moscow quickly dismissed Trump’s warning about the potential offensive in Idlib, saying it was necessary to clear a “nest of terrorists” there. Jihadi groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were threatening Russian bases in Syria and preventing a political solution to the seven-year civil war, Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said, according to the BBC.
Syrian war observers say a major campaign in Idlib could turn into a humanitarian disaster largely because the province is the last remaining safe haven for opposition groups and displaced civilians. Of the 3 million people currently living in Idlib, more than half have already been displaced from somewhere else in Syria, according to the U.N.
“Now, the imminently-expected Assad regime offensive to retake Idlib province has the ability to be a singular catastrophe in a generally catastrophic war,” The Soufan Group, a private intelligence analysis firm, wrote in an assessment Wednesday. “The civilian suffering that will follow from a large-scale military operation by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian co-combatants will be enormous.”
Idlib is also home to a large contingent of hard-core jihadi fighters who have vowed to fight the Assad regime to the end. HTS, which the U.N. has designated as a terrorist organization, has about 10,000 fighters in the province. Other rebel factions under the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front count at least that many fighters in their ranks.
As a major clash looms, Washington has warned Moscow that it will enforce a red line against any use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces. The U.S., Britain and France have launched limited strikes against Syrian military facilities in response to previous chemical weapons attacks, but the Western allies have stopped short of a larger intervention to prevent Assad’s final victory in the war.
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