BEIRUT: Key brokers held last-ditch talks on Thursday on the fate of Syria’s only remaining rebel-held province, hoping to stave off a government offensive the UN has warned could spark catastrophe. Government forces have been massing around Idlib for days and looked poised to launch what could be the last major battle of the civil war that has torn Syria apart since 2011.
After retaking a succession of rebel bastions around the country this year, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has set its sights on Idlib. The province’s most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group and neighbouring Turkey is trying to use its influence to avert a major offensive against it.
“The negotiations between Turkey and HTS are still under way,” said the head of the Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman.
“The issue of the disbanding — should it ever take place — is one that would be discussed internally by the alliance’s consultative council but not dictated by local or foreign parties,” it said. In comments published on its propaganda agency Ibaa, HTS appeared to leave the door open to a negotiated settlement.
“We in HTS are striving to find an effective solution in the liberated Syrian north that would protect our people from a possible offensive by the criminal regime and its allies.”
While Turkey actively sponsors rebel forces in Idlib, its influence over the former Al Qaeda affiliate is less clear and Abdel Rahman warned the chances of success were slim.
“Turkey’s relationship with HTS is a complicated one but may best be framed as cooperative animosity,” said analyst Elizabeth Teoman, of the Institute for the Study of War.
During a press conference with his Saudi counterpart in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted the assault may be imminent. “It is necessary to disassociate the so-called moderate opposition from terrorists and at the same time prepare an operation against them while minimising risks for the civilian population,” Lavrov said. “This abscess needs to be liquidated.”
Iran’s top diplomat also held previously unannounced talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met the Turkish strongman for a hour but little filtered out on the nature of the discussions.
UN Syria envoy ‘ready to go to Idlib’
The UN’s Syria peace envoy offered on Thursday to travel to Idlib to help ensure civilians can leave through a humanitarian corridor amid fears of an imminent government offensive to retake the last major region controlled by rebels.
“I am once again prepared … personally and physically to get involved myself … to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so that they can then return to their own places once this is over,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.
A major military operation in Idlib would pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
“There is no other Idlib,” de Mistura said, stressing the need to ensure civilians can evacuate to nearby areas under government control, with guarantees their rights will be respected once they get there.
“It would be a tragic irony frankly if at almost the end of… a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians,” he said.
De Mistura stressed the need for “constructive, effective” support from Damascus, since the possible corridor would most likely need to lead into government-controlled territory.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.