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Syrian conflict

Russian naval exercise coincides with fears Syria’s Assad regime is preparing for final battle for Idlib

The UN’s Syria peace envoy offered to travel to Idlib to help ensure civilians can leave through a humanitarian corridor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 August, 2018, 8:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2018, 9:46pm

Russia’s Ministry of Defence said on Thursday it would hold a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea from September 1 to September 8, the TASS news agency reported, a move that coincides with rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over Syria.

Russia has this month been actively expanding its naval forces in the Mediterranean, part of what a Russian newspaper on Tuesday called Moscow’s largest naval build-up since it entered the Syrian conflict in 2015.

TASS cited the defence ministry as saying that 25 warships and submarines and 30 planes, including fighter jets and strategic bombers, would take part, and that the drills would involve anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-mining exercises.

The drills coincide with rising tensions between Russia and the West over Syria’s northern rebel-held region of Idlib. A source said on Wednesday that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as “a festering abscess”.

“In the interest of ensuring the security of shipping and aircraft flights in line with international law, the areas of the exercise will be declared dangerous for shipping and flights,” TASS quoted the defence ministry as saying.

Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, said earlier on Thursday that he had told US officials that Moscow was concerned by signs that the United States was preparing new strikes on Syria.

I am once again prepared … to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible
Staffan de Mistura

Meanwhile, the UN’s Syria peace envoy offered to travel to Idlib to help ensure civilians can leave through a humanitarian corridor amid fears of an imminent government offensive to retake the last major region controlled by rebels.

“I am once again prepared … personally and physically to get involved myself … to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so that they can then return to their own places once this is over,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

Idlib, which borders Turkey, is home to nearly three million people, up to half of whom are rebels and civilians transferred en masse from other territory that has fallen to Syrian troops after intense assaults.

A major military operation in Idlib would pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.

“There is no other Idlib,” de Mistura said, stressing the need to ensure civilians can evacuate to nearby areas under government control, with guarantees their rights will be respected once they get there.

“It would be a tragic irony frankly if at almost the end of … a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians. It would be quite tragic at this stage, having seen how difficult the seven years [of Syria’s war] have been.”

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Two years ago, de Mistura offered to go to eastern Aleppo and to personally escort Al Nusra fighters out of the besieged city.

“Al-Nusra refused my offer to accompany them out, and they went to Idlib, and we lost two months at least and thousands of people died because of that,” he said.

The UN envoy said there were an estimated 10,000 al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra fighters in Idlib, along with their families. While he stressed the legitimacy of battling such “UN-identified terrorists”, he insisted efforts to defeat them did not justify putting the lives of some 2.9 million people in the area at risk.

“There is and can be no justification … to not avoid using heavy weapons in densely populated areas,” he said.

On Wednesday, UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that full-scale military operations in Syria’s Idlib province could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe” and cautioned against the use of chemical weapons.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse