Russian warplanes battered Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib on Tuesday for the first time in three weeks, a war monitor said, as expectations mount of a government offensive in the northwestern province.
The strikes came despite US President Donald Trump’s warning to Syria on Monday against launching an attack on the country’s last rebel stronghold with the help of Russia and Iran, saying the offensive could trigger a “human tragedy.”
“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy,” Trump tweeted.
Behind the scenes, American diplomats have also been actively warning Moscow, which has been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to chemical weapon use by its Syrian proteges.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said the Syrian army is getting ready to solve the problem of “terrorism” in the rebel stronghold, apparently referring to a looming regime offensive.
“We know that the Syrian armed forces are getting ready to solve this problem,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, calling Idlib a “pocket of terrorism.”
He did not release a timeframe and did not comment on reports that Russian warplanes had carried out airstrikes on Idlib earlier Tuesday. The Russian defense ministry also did not immediately comment.
Peskov said numerous “terrorists” are holed up in the country’s last rebel stronghold, leading to a “general destabilization of the situation.”
“This undermines attempts to push the situation towards a political and diplomatic settlement and most importantly presents a significant threat for our temporary facilities,” he added.
“No doubt one needs to deal with this problem.”
Regime ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara have held several rounds of talks aimed at averting an assault, but government troops have been massing near the rebel zone.
“Russian warplanes resumed bombing Idlib province after a 22-day pause,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The air raids “came a day after rebel units in Idlib hit regime positions in neighboring Latakia province, which killed three pro-regime fighters,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Tuesday’s bombardment hit several areas held by the jihadist-led Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, among them the large town of Jisr al-Shughur, but also areas held by rival Turkish-backed rebels, including the town of Ariha.
Abdel Rahman could not immediately provide a death toll for the strikes.
Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the last major chunk of territory still in rebel hands.
The Syrian military has been deploying reinforcements to the zone for more than a month and Russian has stepped up its war rhetoric.
Moscow has been carrying out strikes in Syria since September 2015, using aircraft based at the Hmeimim base in Latakia province.
Russia accuses rebels in Idlib of attacking Hmeimim with weaponized drones and insists jihadist groups in the province must be eliminated.
Analysts say there is still a window of opportunity to avoid the humanitarian impact of a full-scale offensive. The United Nations and aid groups have warned that a full assault on Idlib could spark a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not yet seen in Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.
The presidents of Turkey, Russia and fellow regime ally Iran are to meet in Tehran on Friday for three-way talks that are expected to focus on Idlib.
An estimated three million people — half of them displaced from other parts of Syria — live in the province and adjacent rebel-held areas.
Since early 2017, Iran, Russia and rebel backer Turkey have sponsored a negotiations track based in the Kazakh capital to tamp down hostilities in Syria.
Last year, they had designated Idlib as a “de-escalation” zone where violence would halt in preparation for a countrywide ceasefire.
All the while seeking to pressure Turkey into reining in jihadists in Idlib, Damascus’s main sponsor Russia has been sounding the war drums in recent days.
Tehran and Moscow provided steady political, financial and military backing to Assad throughout the war, which has left over 350,000 people dead since it broke out in 2011.