Syria's Idlib: In Regime Sights for Months


A regime assault on the last rebel Syrian stronghold of Idlib has been expected for months, with forces massing in the area and volleys of Russian-backed strikes.

Tens of thousands of people have already fled and the UN has warned a final offensive could provoke "the worst humanitarian catastrophe" of the century.

However, a Russia-Turkey deal late Monday, September 17, to create a demilitarised zone in Idlib may have averted any such move by the regime.

Here is a timeline:

- 'The next Aleppo' - In December 2016 UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warns that Idlib risks becoming "the next Aleppo," speaking after that city is retaken in a devastating government offensive.

A year later, in December 2017, government forces backed by Russian airpower launch a push for the southeast of Idlib province.

After weeks of intense fighting, they seize the Abu Duhur military airport and around 400 villages and towns in the province.

- 'Worse' than Ghouta -In May 2018 de Mistura says a regime assault on Idlib would be "six times" more destructive than the devastating battle to recapture Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold near Damascus.

Ghouta was retaken in April after a five-week assault that killed more than 1,700 civilians.

Russia negotiated the evacuation of rebel fighters and tens of thousands of civilians from Ghouta to Idlib province, where the population has swelled to three million.

- Idlib 'our goal' -After securing Damascus and strategic southern zones, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says in July 2018: "Now Idlib is our goal."

On August 9 government forces shell rebel areas of Idlib and drop leaflets urging people to surrender.

On August 22 the leader of Idlib's dominant jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, Abu Mohamed al-Jolani, warns rival rebel factions against taking part in any talks on an agreed surrender, such as those concluded in other rebel strongholds.

- 'Abscess' -On August 29 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urges the West not to obstruct an "anti-terror operation" in Idlib.

"This abscess needs to be liquidated," Lavrov says. 

The following day Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem reiterates his government's "determination to liberate the entire Syrian territory".

A flurry of meetings between top Syrian, Iranian and Russian officials indicates an offensive is drawing close, prompting US President Donald Trump to warn the three countries against an attack.

Britain, France and the United States say that any use of chemical weapons by government forces in Idlib would not go unpunished.

- Volley of strikes -On September 7 Russian air raids target HTS positions and those of another hardline group, Ahrar al-Sham, in southwestern Idlib. 

The next day the province is hit by a volley of 60 Russian air strikes that the Observatory says are the "most violent" in a month.

It is pounded again on September 9.

On September 10 the UN's humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warns that a large-scale military operation against Idlib could create "the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century." 

- Demilitarisation deal -On September 17 Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meeting in the Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, agree to create a demilitarised buffer zone between rebels and regime troops by October 15.

This would entail a "withdrawal of all radical fighters" from Idlib, Putin says.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu says the agreement meant that no military action would be taken against Idlib, Russian news agencies report.

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