Syria’s Idlib residents urge Turkey to stave off Assad attack
LONDON – Hundreds of Syrians took to the streets in the country’s last major rebel bastion of Idlib Friday, calling on neighbouring Turkey to help prevent a regime assault on their region.
Demonstrators in the northwestern province also denounced a summit in Tehran between the leaders of rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran to determine the province’s fate.
“We all came to protest to say that this people will not back down and will not return to the era of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” said Abdurazzaq Awwad, a father-of-one in Idlib city.
“We expect the Turks to stand by this people,” said Awwad, 31.
“We are not happy at all that the fate of Idlib is being decided in Tehran,” said Awwad, who sported a black beard and wore a white shirt.
“Idlib’s fate should be decided by its people.”
Around him, protesters held up the three-star flag of the Syrian opposition.
“Your plots and conferences mean nothing to us,” read one sign.
Yussef Sadiq, 35, condemned the conference in Tehran as “Iran is part of the problem.”
“Most Syrians hope that Turkey’s efforts will succeed in stopping an assault against Idlib and in protecting its population,” said the bespectacled young man, whose home city of Aleppo was retaken by regime forces in late 2016 after a crippling siege and deadly bombardment.
Some three million people live in Idlib province and adjacent areas, the United Nations says, around half of whom have already fled their homes in other parts of Syria.
Assad’s regime has massed forces around Idlib in recent weeks, sparking international alarm over an imminent offensive on the region controlled by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate and rebels.
The United Nations says up to 800,000 people could be displaced by fighting and aid groups fear the worst humanitarian crisis so far in Syria’s seven-year war.
Turkey, which already hosts more than three million refugees, is keen to avoid a new influx across its border.
Sawsan Al-Saeed, a 45-year-old pharmacist from the same city, was defiant.
“I am certain that Turkey won’t leave the region,” she said.
Similar demonstrations were held in Idlib’s towns of Khan Sheikhun and Jisr al-Shughur, as well as opposition-held areas in the neighbouring provinces of Hama and Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Assad’s Russia-backed regime has retaken large parts of Syria from rebels and jihadists, especially in recent months, through a combination of deadly military campaigns and surrender deals.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the start of the conflict in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.
Russia, Turkey, Iran fail to agree on ceasefire for Idlib
The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Friday failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall the Syrian regime offensive against Idlib.
Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani agreed in a final statement that there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.
But as Syrian government and Russian warplanes mounted air strikes in Idlib on Friday morning in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive, Putin and Rouhani pushed back against Erdogan’s call for a truce.
The Turkish leader said he feared a massacre and Turkey could not accommodate any more refugees flooding over its border.
Putin said a ceasefire would be pointless as it would not involve Islamist militant groups it deems terrorists. Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.
Idlib is the insurgents’ only remaining major stronghold and a government offensive could be the war’s last decisive battle.
Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to the Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.
Their discussions in Tehran mark a crucial point in a seven-year-old war which has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.
Erdogan, in his opening remarks, said a ceasefire in Idlib would be a victory for their summit.
Putin responded: “The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table. And more still, there are no representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS or the Syrian army.”
“I think in general the Turkish president is right. It would be good. But I can’t speak for them, and even more so can’t talk for terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”
In the final statement, the three agreed on the need to eliminate Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and other groups linked to al Qaeda and designated as terrorists. But there were other armed opposition groups who could join any ceasefire agreement, they said.
The communique also called on the United Nations and the international community to step up humanitarian aid to Syria and help in restoring basic infrastructure assets.
Efforts must be made to protect and to create conditions for the safe return of refugees, it added.
Iran’s Rouhani said the battle in Syria would continue until rebels were pushed out of the whole country, especially in Idlib, but he added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.
He called on all rebels in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.
“The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a “scorched-earth” policy,” Rouhani said.
Erdogan said Turkey no longer had the capacity to take in any more refugees from Syria should the government offensive in Idlib go ahead. Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the start of the war in 2011.
“Whatever reason there is an attack that has been made or will be made will result in disaster, massacre and humanitarian drama,” he said. “Millions will be coming to Turkey’s borders because they have nowhere to go. Turkey has filled its capacity to host refugees.”
The Assad regime was not directly represented at the summit, nor were the United States and other Western powers.
Widely abhorred internationality for the brutal conduct of the war, Assad has largely reclaimed most of Syrian territory though much of it is ravaged. Although the West has long said he must stand down or be removed, that looks unlikely at this point.
Meanwhile, the fate of Idlib hung in the balance.
The United Nations Security Council met to discuss Idlib on Friday at the request of the United States, and U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said there were “all the ingredients for a perfect storm”.
“The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib could be, would be a horrific and bloody battle,” de Mistura said.
(Arab Weekly and news agencies)