Trump warns Syria, Russia and Iran over Idlib offensive

US President says Turkey is working to ensure civilians are not killed as Syrian forces, backed by allies, pound region

US President Donald Trump has warned Syria, Russia and Iran against killing civilians as they renew their assault on Idlib, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold.

“Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent (sic) civilians in Idlib Province. Don’t do it! Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.

Russian and Syrian forces have intensified their bombing campaign in Idlib, an area Damascus has repeatedly vowed to retake.

The region is controlled by the rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and is home to three million people, including many displaced by the country’s civil war.

“The bombardment has not stopped… we see it every minute,” Idlib resident Muhannad al-Ibrahim told Middle East Eye earlier this month.

“We are afraid. Death haunts us every day.”

There has been an uptick in violence in the province since Monday and major clashes between Syrian government forces and armed groups have broken out, killing more than 80 people on both sides, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

US-Turkey ties

As Syrian government forces clash with rebels on the ground, Russian warplanes have been pounding areas around Maaret al-Numan and the nearby town of Saraqeb with a series of air strikes.

Last month, the New York Times published a report looking into Russian air raids on Idlib over a 12-hour period, and found that the Russian air force repeatedly bombed hospitals.

In September, Turkey, Russia and Iran had agreed to “de-escalate” the situation in Idlib after a months-long campaign forced at least 500,000 civilians to flee from the province.

But with diplomacy on a Syria peace settlement currently stalled, the de-escalation deal has largely unraveled.

After a Turkish delegation met with Russia for talks in Moscow on Tuesday, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Russia would work to stop attacks in Idlib.

Despite recent congressional moves against Turkey, Trump has sought a close relationship with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

Congress has pushed for sanctions against Turkey for its recent incursion against the US’s Kurdish allies in Syria and has called for the White House to sanction Ankara for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the renewed assault in Idlib and the UN humanitarian agency OCHA warned that a new wave of displaced people fleeing southern Idlib are heading north for safety.

Some of the recently displaced people have said they could expect to see themselves spend nights outside without tents, blankets or heating.

“Everything is against us,” Mohammed Abdul Majeed, a villager from al-Heraki in Homs province displaced to Idlib, told MEE.

“The winter has been hindering our displacement, rains have hindered the transfer of our house. There is no safe place to shelter.”

The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in Ankara in September to “de-escalate” conflict in Idlib after a months-long campaign that forced at least 500,000 civilians to flee. With diplomacy on a Syria peace settlement stalled, the de-escalation deal has been unraveling of late.

The war in Syria, now approaching its ninth year, has devastated much of the country. An estimated half a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to live as refugees.