UN Syria envoy urges Idlib evacuation amid fears of ‘perfect storm’

Diplomat calls for plan for civilians amid growing tensions over the rebel-held region

Syrian rebel fighters prepare in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province, in Kafr Zeta. Photograph: Zein Al Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian rebel fighters prepare in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province, in Kafr Zeta. Photograph: Zein Al Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

 

The UN envoy for Syria has proposed that civilians in the rebel-held region of Idlib could be evacuated to government areas.

Staffan de Mistura expressed fears of a “perfect storm” that could have a devastating impact on the nearly 3 million people – nearly half of whom arrived from elsewhere in Syria – in the region largely controlled by al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

It came as Russia, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s strongest military backer, announced major military drills in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions over the enclave.

“Short of going to Turkey, the civilians have no other option in order not to be where fighting may take place,” Mr de Mistura said in relation to the plan.

The evacuation plan is in its early phases and would need to be discussed with regional players. Russia has expressed openness to the idea.

The evacuation proposal reflected rising concerns that Idlib could become the site of the latest humanitarian disaster in a country that has faced many of them during a war that has killed more than 400,000 people and driven more than 5.5 million to flee.

Mr de Mistura said the proposal would be a “temporary” measure so that “people can then return to their own places untouched once this is over”.

Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition’s delegation to UN talks with the government, called Mr de Mistura’s proposal “unrealistic”.

“It’s very regrettable,” he said. “The special envoy’s role is not to call for a humanitarian corridor, but to call on Russia to stop the aggression.”

Idlib is the last remaining refuge for the Syrian opposition since Mr Assad’s forces began recapturing territory from rebels in 2015. The country has been consumed by war since demonstrations broke out against Mr Assad in 2011.

‘Negotiate peace’

Separately on Thursday, at a news conference in Moscow with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said his government plans to “liberate” Idlib, but that its priority was “to negotiate peace with those who want to surrender”.

Mr Moallem said the government tried to negotiate with a so-called reconciliation committee in Idlib, but al-Qaeda-linked militants arrested most of the committee members.

The militants have arrested more than 500 people accused of trying to negotiate with the regime in recent weeks, according to Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Mr de Mistura said 10,000 al-Qaeda-linked fighters and their families are located in the densely populated region, which is now home to 2.9 million people, many of them already displaced.

After hosting nine rounds of fruitless talks between the Syrian government and opposition, Mr de Mistura has recently focused his efforts on talks with the so-called “guarantors” of the peace process: Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Mr de Mistura said he had no information about any “imminent attack”, but pointed to information about military build-ups and warnings between the sides in Syria. He also spoke of “warnings and counter-warnings” between the US and Russia, though he did not elaborate.

“We need to reduce the risk of unexpected escalation, and definitely look with great concern about any potential use of chemical weapons or any type of weaponised chlorine,” he said.

The US, Britain and France have warned they will respond to any use of chemical weapons in Syria. – AP