An offensive against this latest rebel stronghold would be imminent.
At stake, the fate of about 2.5 million civilians, living in conditions that are already very precarious.
Even Donald Trump, usually inclined to play a dissonant voice, joined the concert of warnings. Motivation: the offensive of Damascus and its allies against the rebel province of Idlib, announced as imminent.
This would be tantamount to a " serious human error ", Warned the president of the United States on September 3. An echo to the" humanitarian disaster Feared by the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The scenario of an offensive on Idlib, a vast and definitive rebel stronghold that escapes Damascus, brings together the ingredients of a fierce battle that the civilians would pay the price. First, there is the scale: this province of northwestern Syria, on the borders of Turkey, has about 2.5 million inhabitants, much more than the other fiefs assumed by the regime – about 400,000 people lived in the eastern part of Ghouta , a suburb of Damascus reconquered last spring.
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Then there are the civilians. " Half are already displaced from other Syrian or displaced regions in the province of Idlib. Says Iolanda Jaquemet, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for the Middle East.
They live in precarious conditions, marked by limited access to water, sanitation and fuel., whose price is high because it is imported. A situation that an offensive could only aggravate.
Fighters in a dead-end street
Another explanation for the very probable duration of the battle: the presence in the province of fighters in large numbers – about 100,000 – and for some ready to fight. For some of these rebels, Idlib takes the place of the cul-de-sac. They were transferred to the area according to the evacuation agreements passed under duress with Damascus after the reconquest of their fortresses. Idlib lost, they would no longer have a reserve area and therefore nothing to lose.
" These fighters are divided into two groups »says the geographer Fabrice Balanche, a specialist in Syria and a lecturer at the University of Lyon II. On the one hand, the members of Hayat Tahrir el Cham, trained around the former branch of Al-Qaida in Syria, which controls 60% of the province.
" These are about 50,000 men, tough, He says. Among them, there are many foreigners: Chechens, Uighurs, Europeans… A group who controls what passes through the Turkish border and imposes taxes. "
On the other side, pro-Turkish fighters, gathered under the banner of the "National Front of Liberation" and supported by Ankara to avoid a jihadist overflow on its territory. These are " less radical According to Fabrice Balanche.
Their fate depends on the position adopted by their Turkish godfather. " Ankara wants to protect them and then asks for more time before the offensive "Continue the geographer, and transfer them to a hypothetical Safety Zone South of Afrin, a Syrian district taken over by Kurdish troops from the Turkish army last March? " Turkey's main concern is to prevent the formation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria "Remember.
Another major Turkish concern: the arrival on its territory of tens of thousands of refugees, driven by the offensive. " For Turkey, it is not about welcoming new civilians »Says Fabrice Balanche.
To read: Syrian refugees roam in the Turkish countryside
The prospect of a tragedy for civilians
It remains to be seen how to protect civilians, who could be victims for two reasons: on the one hand, the assaults of the regime and its allies; from the other, fighters hostile to the regime, who might be tempted to turn them into human shields.
The prospect of this tragic new episode of the war in Syria can still be avoided as long as Russia, Iran and Turkey, the three sponsors of the so-called Astana peace process, return " urgently (…) at the negotiating table ", said the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) on 3 September. The leaders of the three countries will meet on Friday 8 September in Iran.
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4 September The US special representative for Syria discusses the situation with the Turkish Defense Minister, while Moscow announces the Syrian army "Prepare to settle down" the problem of "Terrorism" in Idlib.
2 September. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is on his way to Damascus. " Iran will remain a supporter of the Syrian government (…) and will continue (…) your help for the next Idleb campaign "His spokesman says.
August 29th. In Ankara, Mohammed Javad Zarif meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of whom the Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke disaster "In case of" military solution For Idlib.