WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, is “defending” an impending assault on Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition stronghold.
Pompeo’s warning that such an offensive would be “an escalation of an already dangerous conflict” comes amid growing fears that the Syrian government and its ally Russia are bracing for a major offensive on Idlib, in the northwest of the war-torn country.
On his Twitter feed, Pompeo said that Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad “agreed not to permit this” offensive.
“The 3 million Syrians, who have already been forced out of their homes and are now in Idlib, will suffer from this aggression. Not good. The world is watching,” Pompeo said.
The United Nations has warned that a major military operation in Idlib could displace as many as 800,000 people.
U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had on Thursday offered to go to Idlib to ensure civilians will have safe humanitarian corridors ahead of the impending assault.
“No one doubts that al-Nusra (currently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and al-Qaida are terrorists … and terrorists identified by the U.N. need to be defeated,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist alliance led by an al-Qaida-affiliated group.
On Friday, Syrian opposition sharply criticized de Mistura’s comment.
Yehia Aridi, a senior opposition politician, said that de Mistura’s statement “gives an excuse” to the Syrian government to attack Idlib and “also use chemical weapons.”
Aridi, a member of the opposition negotiating team to U.N. peace talks, told dpa that “humanitarian issues should not be used to announce the attack on Idlib.”
Meanwhile, spokesman for the rebel National Liberation Front, Naji Mustapha, said that de Mistura should have focused on humanitarian issues — being part of his job as a U.N. peace envoy.
“We were astonished by de Mistura’s statement because he should not have touched on military issues, “ Mustapha told dpa.
On Thursday, de Mistura also warned that the presence of 10,000 al-Qaida-linked fighters in Idlib did not justify an attack that could endanger the lives of civilians there.
During the last three years, thousands of rebels and their families have been evacuated from different parts of Syria to Idlib under agreements with the government.
Thousands of people demonstrated in Idlib and the neighboring province of Aleppo on Friday against a possible attack on Idlib, activists reported. The protesters denounced what they called “world silence” over the Syrian government’s threats to attack Idlib.
The demonstrators also protested de Mistura’s remarks and called him a “liar,” the activists added.
Rebels, meanwhile, blew up two bridges in Idlib’s countryside that pass over the Orontes River, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.
Both bridges linked areas of the neighboring province of Hama, controlled by the government, to rebel territory in Idlib, the watchdog added.
Mustapha told dpa that rebels had blown up the bridges for military reasons in order to “make it difficult for any regime infiltration” into the area.
Government forces have been massing around Idlib for the past weeks.
The Observatory reported that tens of thousands of government loyalists and more than 2,000 armored vehicles had been deployed to the neighboring provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo in preparation for the Idlib campaign.
Turkey, a main backer of the opposition, has for weeks been engaged in diplomatic efforts to prevent the government attack on Idlib along its border. Turkey, Russia and Iran are set to hold a summit on Syria on Sept. 7.
(Hamzah reported from Washington, Gold from Beirut.)
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): de Mistura