Britain, France and Germany have called on the Assad regime to halt its “ruthless reconquest” of the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib while Turkey has appealed directly to Russia to bring a stop to the offensive.
World powers have grown increasingly alarmed as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have begun pounding the south of Idlib, backed by Russian air power, killing more than 120 civilians and bombing 18 hospitals. There are around three million civilians in the province, prompting European and Turkish fears that a major offensive would trigger a fresh flow of Syrian refugees.
With little diplomatic or military leverage, the three European governments had few options besides issuing a joint statement condemning the violence.
The UK, France, and Germany acknowledged that Idlib was dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group linked to al-Qa’ida, but said that was no justification for the intense bombardment. “The current brutal offensive by the Syrian regime and its backers on millions of civilians in the area is not about fighting terrorism. It is about pushing forward the ruthless reconquest by the regime,” the three governments said.
Turkey has troops stationed in Idlib and has more political heft because of Russia’s desire to support the Assad regime without alienating the Turks.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, told Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, that he believed the Syrian regime offensive was meant to “sabotage” Turkish-Russian co-operation, a spokesman said.
Russia is pushing Turkey to use its influence with the rebels to force HTS fighters to pull back from a buffer zone around the province’s borders.
The Russian and Turkish defence ministers also spoke yesterday about how to de-escalate the situation.
Pro-Assad forces have captured several towns in the south but have not made major territorial gains. It remains unclear whether they hope to overrun Idlib or have more limited goals, such as capturing key motorways.
On Monday, rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces.
A senior rebel commander said yesterday the offensive showed an array of rebel forces – from Turkey-backed rebels to jihadists – were still able to prevent the army from making major advances.
“We conducted this lighting offensive to show the Russians we are not easy prey and throw the regime off balance,” said Abu Mujahid, from the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front.
Since April 28, a total of 18 health facilities have been struck, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
The Syrian army denies its strikes target civilians and says its forces only bomb militants associated with hardline Sunni fundamentalist groups linked to al-Qa’ida.