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Syria, Turkey, Russia and U.S. to Square Off in Idlib With Millions of Civilians in the Crosshairs

Aid workers are bracing for the Idlib battle, which Turkey claims will put millions of civilians in danger - despite their desire to attack jihadist forces there

Syrians gather amidst destruction in Zardana, in the mostly rebel-held northern Syrian Idlib province, in the aftermath of following air strikes in the area late on June 8, 2018
AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR

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Turkey's foreign minister said last Friday it would be disastrous to seek a military solution in the northern Syrian region of Idlib, a rebel-held enclave which the Syrian government says it aims to recapture.

Idlib is a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as for powerful jihadist forces. It has been hit by a wave of air strikes and shelling this month in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.

Turkey has backed some rebel groups in the region and set up a dozen military observation posts. It is trying to avert an attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow.

"A military solution here would be a disaster, not just for the Idlib region, but a disaster in terms of Syria's future," Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The two ministers met in Ankara 10 days ago and Cavusoglu then gave a similar message, saying it would be a "massacre" to bomb Idlib, even though there are militants there.

"Where will some 3.5 million civilians go to?" Cavusoglu said on Friday.

"It is important for all of us to neutralise these radical groups," he said. "But we have to distinguish the civilians from the terrorist groups."

Idlib is controlled by an array of insurgent groups, with Sunni Muslim jihadists believed to be the dominant force there.

Lavrov told the same news conference that tens of thousands of militants were trying to obstruct Turkey's efforts to separate them from more moderate forces.

He said further talks on Idlib would take place in Moscow later on Friday involving the two countries' defence ministers and intelligence services.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with Cavusoglu later on Friday. 

U.S. warns against chemical attack

Last week, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said U.S. contacts with Russia did not include any understanding over a push by Damascus's forces against the rebels in Idlib. But he warned against any use of chemical or biological weapons there.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has sought to disengage from Syria, where the previous administration deployed some troops and gave limited support to rebel Kurdish forces over the objections of NATO partner Turkey.

Humanitarian crisis

An anticipated Syrian government offensive against rebels in Idlib province could displace more than 700,000 people, far more than were uprooted in a recent battle in the southwest of Syria, a UN-led group of health agencies said in a monthly report.

Many of Syria's battles have ended with agreements for fighters and their families to depart for Idlib governorate, where an influx of displaced people has roughly doubled the population to around 2.5 million.

The United Nations has said the province has become a "dumping ground" for evacuees.

The monthly Health Cluster Bulletin, published by a group of health-focused aid agencies led by the World Health Organization, said aid workers were bracing for the Idlib battle.