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Syria, Russia pound Idlib as northern assault begins ahead of peace talks

September 5, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Syrian and Russian air forces shelled sites across the north western Idlib province yesterday, ahead of proposed peace talks this week aimed at preventing a major attack.

Over 46 raids hit the area yesterday morning, killing at least 27 people, across the western countryside in the towns of Jisr Al-Shoghur, Al-Shegher and Harish Besnqul. The White Helmets civil defence unit confirmed that five children, all members of the same family and aged between five and 11, were among those killed.

In recent weeks, government forces have been amassing on Idlib’s western edge, with airstrikes sweeping the region leaving dozens dead. Last month the Syrian air force also dropped leaflets over various towns urging residents to surrender to the regime as the war was nearing its end.

Yesterday’s strikes came as the UN urged Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs certain opposition groups in Idlib, to help avert a “bloodbath“. Idlib is home to some three million residents, half of whom are already internally displaced from other areas of Syria.

The recent shelling has already prompted dozens of civilians to flee towards Aleppo on the eastern side of the province, or towards Turkey, which has sealed off its border with Syria since last year, allowing only for the flow of humanitarian goods.

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Russia, Iran and Turkey are due to meet in Tehran later this week to discuss the issue of Idlib, as a continuation of the tripartite negotiations that have taken place in Astana, Kazakhstan, since 2016.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned against “a serious massacre” in the north this week, adding that the situation was critical for Turkey.

“We will carry this issue to a positive point with the Tehran summit, which is a continuation of Astana. I hope we will be able to prevent the Syrian government’s extremism in this region,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.

Russia and the Syrian regime have accused Idlib as being a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that must be resolved. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on Monday for militants to be “cleaned out” out of the north, before clarifying his comments yesterday, stating that fighters should be removed with “the least human cost” possible.

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US President Donald Trump took to Twitter this week to warn the regime and its allies not to “recklessly attack” the north.

“The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!” he wrote.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week Washington would view any government assault on Idlib as an escalation of Syria’s war, and the State Department cautioned that Washington would respond to any chemical attack by Damascus.