FRI 19 - 4 - 2019
Date: Sep 4, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Remaining militants must be cleaned out of Idlib: Iran
BEIRUT: Iran called Monday for militants to be “cleaned out” of Syria’s Idlib province, as it prepared for talks with Syria and Russia about confronting the last major enclave held by rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad.

Syrian government forces are planning a phased offensive in Idlib and surrounding areas held by insurgents fighting Assad, who has been backed by both Russian and Iranian forces in the country’s conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Washington views any government assault on Idlib as an escalation of Syria’s war, and the State Department warned that Washington would respond to any chemical attack by Damascus.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Damascus to discuss plans for an upcoming summit between the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey, which Tehran will host on Sept. 7 to discuss Idlib, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.

Turkey, which has long supported anti-Assad rebels, has cooperated with Russia and Iran on talks over Syria in recent years and has troops in the Idlib region on an observation mission.

Zarif met Assad, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis and Syrian

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who asked for Iran to continue its support, according to Iran’s Fars News.“All of Syrian territory must be preserved, all the sects and groups should start the round of reconstruction as one collective and the displaced should return to their families,” Zarif said, according to Fars News.

“And the remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people.”

Assad’s office said in a statement: “The two sides asserted that the pressures from some Western states on Syria and Tehran will not deter the two countries from continuing to defend their principles.”

Zarif went to Sayyida Zeinab, a shrine south of Damascus revered by Shiites, as his first stop on the trip, according to Fars News.

The International Crisis Group said Monday an all-out Syrian offensive against Idlib and its catastrophic consequences can still be averted.

The Brussels-based think tank argued that Russia, whose air support would be crucial for the offensive to succeed, should understand that a bloodbath in Idlib would jeopardize its own political goals.

“By backing an all-out offensive, Russia risks undermining its long-term political objectives in Syria,” ICG wrote in a nine-page briefing entitled “Saving Idlib from destruction.”

The United Nations and aid groups have warned that a full assault on the province could spark a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not yet seen in Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

ICG argued that Moscow would be shooting itself in the foot by backing such a scenario.

“Russia seeks to ensure not just the regime’s military victory in Syria but its full political restoration through international re-legitimation at war’s end,” it said.

The think tank stressed that Russia needed Turkey, a co-sponsor of Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana that yielded previous deals meant to reduce violence and pave the way for reconciliation.

“Likewise, a regime victory in Idlib that kills many civilians and displaces hundreds of thousands would shock the same European countries Russia is now courting to reopen diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime and invest in reconstruction,” ICG wrote.

It said the three Astana guarantors should urgently return to the negotiating table and thrash out a plan that would satisfy some of Moscow’s key demands.

ICG cited “intensified Turkish efforts to rid the area of jihadis, an end to drone attacks on Russia’s [Hmeimim] air base and regime control over Idlib’s key highways.”

“There is an alternative to a military offensive,” it said.

Separately, an airstrike near a U.S. base in southeastern Syria has killed at least eight pro-government fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Monday.

Four Syrians, one Iranian national and three other non-Syrian fighters were among the casualties of the strike carried out Saturday, the Observatory said.

“A convoy of Iranian forces and allied militia was hit by airstrikes as it drove near Al-Tanf base,” the head of the activist group Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

Several strikes against Syrian government or allied forces have been in the past attributed to U.S. forces deployed as part of a multinational coalition against Daesh (ISIS).

The base, set up in 2016 near the borders with Iraq and Jordan, was also used for the training of so-called “vetted opposition” to the Assad regime.

Despite a 55-kilometer deconfliction zone around the base, Al-Tanf is seen as a potential flashpoint between the U.S. and Iranian or Tehran-backed forces.

The presence of a U.S. base in the arid border region has been a source of tension and its dismantling is often cited as a key demand by Damascus and its allies.

Beyond the battle against Daesh militants in their nearby desert hideouts, analysts say Washington sees the base as disrupting Iranian efforts to open an east-west land corridor between Tehran and Lebanon.

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