Syrian Hadheefa al-Shahadh, 27, sits with his children in a cave that he dug inside his house to shelter him and his family as part of preparations for any upcoming raids in the rebel-held Idlib province's village of Maar Shurin, on September 11, 2018. Photo: Omar Haj Kadour | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his call for Iran and Russia to stop a looming "humanitarian disaster" in Syria's Idlib province.
Erdogan wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the West has an "obligation to stop the next bloodshed" but that Moscow and Tehran, were "likewise responsible for stopping this humanitarian disaster.”
Damascus, backed by Iran and Russia, is preparing a major offensive on Idlib and other areas of northwest Syria to bring them under regime control.
The offensive could lead to a humanitarian nightmare, as there are no more opposition areas left in Syria for people to flee to and borders are mostly closed to refugees.
Erdogan's comments came
just four days after meeting with his Iranian and Russian counterparts in Tehran to develop a strategy to protect Idlib's civilians, where Erdogan failed to achieve his goal, a ceasefire in the province which is home to nearly 3 million people.
Although Erdogan has been a staunch supporter to the regime's opposition forces in an effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he has also been involved in talks with Iran and Russia to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria which is entering its eighth year.
Idlib faces "the worst humanitarian catastrophe" of the century, the United Nations warned on Monday. More than 30,000 civilians have already been displaced since fresh bombing raids began last week.
On Saturday, the "most violent" Russian air strikes in weeks hit southern and southeastern areas of Idlib, leaving four civilians dead according to the UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The consequences of inaction are immense. We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad," Erdogan wrote in the WSJ.
The Turkish president also criticized Assad's attempt of trying to legitimize an attack as counter-terrorism efforts.
"Innocent people must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism," he wrote.
Idlib, which straddles the Turkish border, is mostly under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – a battle-hardened umbrella group of jihadists led by Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate. Ankara designated the group as "terrorists" last month.
Additionally, pockets of the province still remain under ISIS control.
Erdogan acknowledged that groups such as HTS "remain active in this area" but insisted that these fighters "account for a fraction of Idlib's population."
The Turkish leader called on a "comprehensive international counter-terrorism operation" and that the assistance of pro-Turkey rebels would be "crucial" in Idlib.
Turkey already has sheltered more than 3 million Syrian refugees and fears that a large-scale military operation in Idlib could lead to the influx of some 2 million more.
Assad's forces began amassing in the areas of Idlib already under its control and on its southern and eastern flanks.
Complicating matters, the Turkish armed forces also have several outposts in Idlib in support of rebel groups. Moves by Assad risk pitting Russian-backed Syrian forces against Turkish soldiers
It is unclear when the offensive will formally begin and what impact the fall of Idlib could have on Turkish-controlled Afrin and the northern provinces controlled by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The United Nations Security Council has been briefed several times, since the tripartite talks in Tehran failed to reach a ceasefire agreement.
"If Assad, Russia, and Iran continue down the path they are on, the consequences will be dire. The world will hold them responsible. And no number of Security Council meetings will ever change that," said UN Representative Nikki Haley at a UNSC meeting on Tuesday.
The US Ambassador chairs the rotating UNSC presidency for September.
"We will not allow Iran, through the facade of the Astana Process, to hijack the future of the Syrian people," added Haley.
Russia and Iran have accused the United States of hijacking the UNSC in September for their own and allies' gains in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned of the consequences to the West of the offensive on Tuesday.
"There are in all likelihood dozens of French fighters from both Al-Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State)" in Idlib, he told French broadcaster BFMTV, adding there were "also many terrorists from other nations who could scatter.”
"The attack being prepared by the Syrian regime with Russia's backing is extremely dangerous," he added.
Updated at 9:24 p.m.