U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern Wednesday that there could be a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the Syrian province of Idlib if there is a full-scale military operation there.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, with support from Russia, has said it plans to clear the area of militants from the Nusrah Front. There has been a surge in air strikes and shelling in the area this month, raising fears of an all-out offensive similar to what happened previously in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta.
"Idlib is the last major stronghold of terrorists who are trying to gamble on the status of the de-escalation zone and hold civilians as human shields and bring the armed formations ready for negotiations with the Syrian government to their knees,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow earlier Wednesday according to the state-run Itar-Tass news agency. “So, from all standpoints, this ‘abscess’ has to be liquidated," he added.
Some 3 million people live in the northwestern Idlib governorate, including more than a million who were displaced from other parts of Syria. The U.N. says more than 2 million people in Idlib need humanitarian assistance and that aid agencies are prepositioning supplies to prepare for a further deterioration in the situation.
“The secretary-general urgently appeals to the government of Syria and all parties to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians,” said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric. “He calls on the Astana guarantors to step up the efforts to find a peaceful solution to the situation in Idlib, the last remaining de-escalation zone.”
Russia, Iran and Turkey are the guarantors of the de-escalation zones. The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met August 24 to discuss the issue.
Russia and Syria have accused the West of planning to carry out a chemical weapons attack in Idlib with the help of the Syrian civil society group the White Helmets and to blame it on the Assad regime.
A report from the Syrian news agency SANA Wednesday claimed that Turkish trucks “under the supervision of foreign mercenaries” and with help from the White Helmets were transporting gas cylinders into Idlib. The report said, “About 20 people with dark brown skin who speak French and English” took part in the operation.
The United States has warned that it will hold the Assad government and Russia accountable for any escalation in Idlib, including the use of chemical weapons.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that senior administration officials have spoken with their Russian counterparts, “to make it very clear that the United States government and its partners would respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib, or elsewhere in Syria for that matter, in a swift and appropriate manner,” she said.