US envoy presses Russia to halt Syrian offensive on Idlib

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A top US envoy today pressed Russia to get the Syrian regime to halt a military offensive into the northwestern Syrian enclave of Idlib that has driven some half a million people to flee their homes since December.

A top US envoy today pressed Russia to get the Syrian regime to halt a military offensive into the northwestern Syrian enclave of Idlib that has driven some half a million people to flee their homes since December.

“Russia needs to change its policies,” US Syria envoy James Jeffrey told journalists at the State Department today.

“We are very worried about this,” Jeffrey said. “We have seen not just the Russians, but the Iranians and Hezbollah actively supporting this offensive.”

The US administration is not sure if the Syrian regime offensive is intended just to go to the M4 road, or beyond, he added.

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“The United States once again condemns the continued, unjustifiable, and ruthless assaults on the people of Idlib,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday. “We stand by our NATO ally Turkey in the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in the death of multiple Turkish personnel serving at an observation post used for coordination and de-escalation, and fully support Turkey’s justified self-defense actions in response.”

The UN Security Council was expected to hold an emergency meeting on the situation in Idlib and Syria on Thursday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday following the killing of eight Turkish troops by Russian-backed Syrian forces in Idlib province Monday.

“We will of course sit down and discuss everything,” Erdogan told journalists traveling with him to Ukraine on Tuesday, referring to Russia. “Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses.”

The UN secretary-general appealed for a cease-fire.

“We are particularly worried that now the escalation came into a situation in which we had Turkish army and Syrian army bombing each other, and that, of course, is a change in the nature of the conflict that is extremely worrying,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told journalists at a press conference Tuesday. 

“My strong appeal is for a cessation of hostilities, and my strong appeal, again, is for all the conditions for humanitarian aid to be created … humanitarian aid to be distributed, to be created as we are seeing now about, I think, 500,000 people already displaced by the recent offensive and the very dramatic humanitarian needs related to it,” Guterres said.

Amid the escalating violence between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in Syria, the United States has also seen an increase in the number of instances of Russian troops entering deep into territory the United States still controls in northeastern Syria, Jeffrey said.

Both Russia and the United States are trying to exploit Russian-Turkish and Turkish-US tensions to advantage, said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who supports the Syrian opposition now based out of Washington.

“The more Russia feels that Turkey is not part of its alliance with Iran … and it is leaning more to the Americans, the more Russia tries to make Turkey pay a heavy price for that,” Barabandi told Al-Monitor. “And the heavy price is more IDPS” — internally displaced people fleeing toward the Turkish border.

“That is why they allow the regime to pursue its offensive,” Barabandi said, adding that the Syrian IDPs are largely fleeing the areas before the Syrian regime takes them.

“They simply leave it,” Barabandi said. “The villages are empty. Even they are not under attack from the regime. The regime is coming, they leave. The regime goes to any area, destroys the school, because that is where IDPs are, and hospitals, because that is where the injured are. … Basically, they don’t have leadership, a center where the people can go.”

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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