Idlib, Syria

Courtesy of Mustafa Alabdullah via AP

U.S. Not Pleased As Russian Airstrikes Pound Rebel Stronghold In Syria

September 07, 2018 - 3:54 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- Russian airstrikes pounded rebel positions in Syria’s Idlib province Friday, and the U.S. was not happy about it.

CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk explained the Syrian government and the Russian planes began the airstrikes about a week ago as a possible prelude to a full-scale military offensive.

Iran and Russia have backed the campaign to retake the Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, while Turkey pleaded for a cease-fire, narrowing the chances of a diplomatic solution to avoid what many say would be a bloody humanitarian disaster.

The trilateral summit in Tehran involving Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan puts further pressure on the rebel forces still operating in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, including about 10,000 hard-core jihadists and al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

It left the chance, however slim, for further diplomacy to try to separate civilians and rebels from the Islamic militants in Idlib.

The U.S. also warned against an assault in Idlib, with Ambassador Nikki Haley telling the U.N. Security Council that "the consequences will be dire."

Northwestern Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria.

“The UN agencies, the UN experts today, all were warning people that there’s nowhere they can go. And you heard from the presidents of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, saying that they failed to agree on a ceasefire,” Falk said. “And so the idea here is that there may be a confrontation with over a million children there, and part of the question is what could happen. Nothing was solved by diplomacy today at the UN.”

While Putin called for the "total annihilation of terrorists in Syria," he left open the possibility of a cease-fire. Rouhani as well spoke of "cleansing the Idlib region of terrorists," while also noting the need of protecting civilians.

Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, fears a military offensive will touch off a flood of refugees and destabilize areas it now holds in Syria. Ankara also has hundreds of troops manning 12 observation posts in Idlib.

"Idlib isn't just important for Syria's future; it is of importance for our national security and for the future of the region," Erdoğan said. "Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe. Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience. . We don't want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath."

Erdoğan also sought to use Persian literature to drive home his point in Tehran, quoting the poet Saadi: "If you've no sympathy for human pain, the name of a human you cannot retain."

But in her remarks at the U.N. Security Council, Haley said the U.S. has been clear with Russia and other nations that "we consider any assault on Idlib to be a dangerous escalation of the conflict in Syria."

"If Assad, Russia and Iran continue, the consequences will be dire," she said.

"We urge Russia to consider its options carefully. Stop Assad's assault on Idlib. Work with us and the U.N. to find peace at last for Syria," she said.

Falk said there is concern that a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia could erupt.

“Now today, there was a notice from Russia that they might begin a series of strikes in another rebel stronghold where they say the terrorists are still, and there’s ISIS control. And so the U.S. began military exercises in response to that with more than 100 U.S. troops beginning an exercise in direct response to these threats, and the U.S. has a final push set for the next few weeks against ISIS in the same areas,” Falk said.

She continued: “There are about 400 square miles still of territory in Syria that are under ISIS control, but you heard a very stern response by the U.S. military forces and U.S. Pentagon today saying that the United States does not seek to fight the Russians, the government of Syria, or any groups. However, the U.S. will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend U.S. coalition or partner forces. So I think there’s a fear there will be a confrontation, particularly in the south.”

The U.S. has found itself largely on the sidelines of the possible offensive as Iran, Russia and Turkey — all nations that Washington has imposed sanctions upon — discuss Idlib's future. Although the U.S. has about 2,000 troops and outposts in Syria, President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull those forces out after the war against the Islamic State group dislodged the extremists from vast territories it once held there and in Iraq.

But for Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's civil war after Syrian troops recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.

A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalizing, and could hurt Russia's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's postwar reconstruction. Russia also wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. and its long uncertainty over what it wants in the conflict.

"We think it's unacceptable when (someone) is trying to shield the terrorists under the pretext of protecting civilians as well as causing damage to Syrian government troops," Putin said. "As far as we can see, this is also the goal of the attempts to stage chemical weapons incidents by Syrian authorities. We have irrefutable evidence that militants are preparing such operations, such provocations."

Putin offered no evidence to back his claim. The U.N. and Western countries have blamed Assad's forces for chemical weapons attacks in the civil war, something denied by Russia and Syria. The U.S., Britain and France have vowed to take action against any further chemical attacks by Assad's regime.

Reacting to Erdoğan's proposal for a cease-fire in Idlib, Putin said "a cease-fire would be good" but indicated that Moscow does not think it will hold.

"We hope that we will be able to reach an agreement and that our call for reconciliation in the Idlib area will be heard," the Russian president said. "We hope that the representatives of those terrorist organizations will be smart enough to stop the resistance and lay down arms."

There was no immediate reaction from fighters in Idlib. Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation, said before the summit that his forces were prepared for a battle that they expect will lead to a major humanitarian crisis.

"Idlib is about a lot of international power play and everyone is looking after their interests," al-Mustafa said.

Early Friday, a series of airstrikes hit villages in southwest Idlib, targeting insurgent posts and killing five people, including a civilian, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Abdurrahman said suspected Russian warplanes carried out the attack.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)