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Many In Syria Worried That Government Is Preparing To Launch Assault On Idlib Region


The fate of close to 3 million Syrians living in the Idlib region hangs in the balance. The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, are trying to retake the area which is the last major rebel stronghold. U.N. officials are trying to head off what they fear could be a major bloodbath. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Idlib region in northern Syria is packed with Syrians who found safety there from other battle zones in the country. So if the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, carries out an all-out offensive, there may be nowhere else for those Syrians to go, as U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura explained to the Security Council today.


STAFFAN DE MISTURA: So let's remember that there is no Idlib after Idlib to which people can be evacuated or at least be feeling safer.

KELEMEN: He points out that Turkey, Iran and Russia had declared Idlib a, quote, "de-escalation zone." So he says they're responsible for protecting civilians there. After a meeting in Tehran, the leaders of those countries issued a joint statement saying they would handle Idlib in a, quote, "spirit of cooperation." De Mistura is seeking more clarity and more time for diplomacy.


DE MISTURA: Any battle for Idlib could be - would be a horrific and bloody battle. Civilians are its potential victims. And there are ever-present dangers, in the case of a full-scale assault, of incidents or rapid escalations involving regional and international players.

KELEMEN: There are many players with different agendas. Russia and Iran back the Syrian government, which is trying to wipe out the remaining resistance in Idlib. Turkey is worried about a new refugee crisis along its border. And the U.S. wants to make sure that any operation is targeted against designated terrorist groups not other rebels that have been fighting the Syrian government. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley says the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its backers seem to be using the same old playbook - calling everyone terrorists and making every man, woman and child a target.


NIKKI HALEY: When Russia and the Assad regime say they want to counter terrorism, they actually mean they want to bomb schools, hospitals and homes. They want to punish the civilians who had the courage to rise up against Assad.

KELEMEN: Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, says the U.S. and other Western countries are, in his words, stoking hysteria to prevent the fall of the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. And he accuses terrorists in Idlib, as he calls them, of acting in an aggressive way. The fate of Idlib is the first big test for James Jeffrey, a retired diplomat who was brought back to the State Department to work on Syria diplomacy. He's warning Russia against what he calls a reckless escalation.


JAMES JEFFREY: The Russians want a stabilized, reasonably survivable Syrian regime. Right now, it is a cadaver sitting in rubble with just half the territory of Syria under regime control - on a good day. That doesn't smell like victory to me, to quote "Apocalypse Now."

KELEMEN: Jeffrey says the conflict seems to be entering a new phase. All of the countries involved in the war, including the U.S., have accomplished their primary jobs. But he adds no one is happy with the current situation, so he says this is a time for diplomacy. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.