Fight for last rebel stronghold in Syria could be the bloodiest yet


Holding on to power: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters
Holding on to power: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

Syrian and allied Russian forces are preparing for an assault on the last-remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib.

The United Nations has warned that an all-out offensive on the province, where as many as three million people are trapped, could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country.

The UN is hoping a last-minute summit between the major world powers that back opposing sides in the conflict can reach a political agreement that could at least limit the number of civilian casualties.

However, a barrage of Russian air strikes on Tuesday suggested they were in no mood for compromise.

Idlib is a province in northwestern Syria and is now the last-remaining territory controlled by the Syrian opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly said he will retake “every inch” of Syria, including Idlib.

Mr Assad’s forces have already seized the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo, as well as Eastern Ghouta, Deraa and parts of the Golan Heights over the last seven years.

Idlib has become something of a holding pen for rebel fighters, activists, journalists and others, who were sent to the province from other parts of the country after refusing to reconcile with the government.

An estimated three million people – half of them displaced from other parts of Syria – live in the province and it is expected an offensive there would be the deadliest yet in the war. Idlib is important because it is the final rebel stronghold. A defeat in Idlib would signal the end of the opposition to Mr Assad and the death of the revolution.

Idlib is also strategically important because of its position close to the Turkish border, and because of the highway that runs through it that connects Mr Assad’s heartland in Latakia to the west and Syria’s second city of Aleppo to the south.

Mr Assad is keen to show he is in charge and he is there to stay. His position would be solidified by a “victory” in Idlib.

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Idlib is controlled by a complex patchwork of different rebel groups. There are an estimated 30,000-40,000 fighters in Idlib, 10,000 of which are members of formerly Isil-linked Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition against Isil, recently called Idlib province “the largest al-Qa’ida safe haven since 9/11”.

Russia had urged Turkey, which funds and supports more moderate elements of the opposition, to rid Idlib of its most extreme elements. This, however, has proved virtually impossible.

An offensive is expected now within the coming days, with Syrian troops massed around Idlib and Russian ships in place in the Mediterranean.

Western diplomats have told the ‘Daily Telegraph’ they expect an offensive to retake Idlib to take several months.

This is for a number of reasons: quite simply there is nowhere left for thousands of rebel fighters to go now that all other opposition territory has been retaken by government forces.

Rebels in other areas agreed deals which saw them bussed to Idlib rather than surrender.

Thousands are foreign fighters, including Chechen, Chinese Uighurs and Europeans, who will not be able to reconcile with the government and will most likely fight to the death.

The US and Turkey, the opposition’s main backers, now see an assault as inevitable, but will be looking to limit the scope of any operation and its potential fallout.

This is a particular priority for Turkey, which has closed its border with Syria to stop the flow of refugees.

An assault on Idlib could send hundreds of thousands more its way, a burden that already refugee-saturated Turkey could not bear.

UN officials say as many as 800,000 people could be displaced and that the already high number of people in need of aid could increase dramatically.

Many of these are already living in tents and camp settlements near the border.

Telegraph.co.uk

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