Turkey arms rebels as Idlib prepares for Syrian onslaught

Leroy Wright
September 15, 2018

Over the past few years, thousands of rebels have been evacuated from different parts of Syria to Idlib under agreements with the government.

Some rebel groups seem to have been okay with the offer, but not the ultra-radical ones of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and like-minded groups.

Idlib's most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), which Ankara officially designated a "terrorist" group last month.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

He said Idlib is the last so-called "de-escalation zone" in Syria.

A full-scale air and ground offensive is likely to send waves of refugees surging toward the sealed Turkey border, coinciding with the onset of winter.

At a meeting in Tehran last week, the leaders of Russian Federation and Iran backed military operations in Idlib despite pleas from Erdogan for a cease-fire.

During the summit, Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed another cease-fire in Idlib, but such a proposal wasn't met with satisfaction from the other two leaders, who were largely in favor of a military campaign to resolve the situation in Idlib.

Syrian government forces fired chlorine, a banned chemical weapon, on a rebel-held Damascus suburb and on Idlib province this year, in attacks that constitute war crimes, United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday.

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An estimated 3mn people live in Idlib - the last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey also maintains a troop presence - hundreds of soldiers deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib.

The Turkish military does not comment on troop movements, but Reuters television footage has shown military convoys heading to the border region in the last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had recorded the deaths of 364 792 people, almost a third of them civilians, since protests erupted in March 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad. It is seeking to gain time to support its efforts, it said, to separate radical militants from moderate opposition groups it backs.

The meeting will take place in the Russian resort city of Sochi, a senior Turkish official told AFP.

"We hope for the best but prepare for the worst, " UN Syria aid coordinator Panos Moumtzis said as he presented the contingency plan to reporters in Geneva on Thursday.

He also stressed that it's the responsibility of Turkey now to separate the terrorist groups from the moderate ones.

About half of those displaced so far have moved to camps, while others went to informal settlements, stayed with families or rented housing, OCHA spokesman David Swanson said on Monday.

In the run-up to a possible Idlib offensive, the Syrian government and Russian Federation have alleged that rebels in Idlib are planning to use chemical weapons to frame the government and induce Western punitive airstrikes.

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