UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

Residents of the Idlib province flee toward the Syrian Turkish border on September 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 September 2018
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UN: Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st century

  • Russian and Syrian warplanes resumed their bombing campaign last week
  • Idlib is the last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar Assad.

The UN’s new humanitarian chief warned Monday that a large-scale military operation against the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century. “There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century,” Mark Lowcock said in Geneva.
His remarks came as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, massed around the northwestern province ahead of an expected onslaught against the largest opposition-held zone left in the country.
Since 2015, Idlib has been home to a complex array of anti-regime forces: Secular fighters, radicals, Syrian terrorists with ties to Al-Qaeda — and their foreign counterparts.
It is home to some 3 million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the UN.
Foreign terrorists now face a fight to the last to hold onto Idlib, their final bastion.
Lowcock acknowledged that “there is a large number of fighters there, including terrorists from proscribed organizations.”
But he stressed that “there are 100 civilians, most of them women and children, for every fighter in Idlib.”
“We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people,” he said, warning that “civilians are severely at risk.”

Detailed planning
A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.
While appealing to the warring sides in Syria to avoid a catastrophe, Lowcock said the UN and other aid organizations were all doing “very detailed planning” to be able to respond quickly in the case of a major assault on the province.
“We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions,” he said.
He said that the UN had plans to reach up to 800,000 people who might be displaced, and were bracing for around 100,000 people to move into regime-held areas and some 700,000 to initially flee within Idlib.
The UN’s World Food Programme, he said had already prepositioned food stocks for some 850,000 people for the first week or so of any large-scale operation.
“It is a very major preoccupation for us,” he said.
The non-Syrian combatants in Idlib include fighters from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and China’s ethnic Uighur minority who cut their teeth in other wars but then swarmed to Syria to take up the cause.
The threatened assault by the regime could deprive the few thousand left of their last stronghold in their adopted homeland.
“These are people who cannot be integrated into Syria really, under any circumstances, who have nowhere to go and who may just be ready to die in any case,” says Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“So they’re a real stumbling block to any solution,” said Heller.
In a bid to avert an assault, the top three power brokers in Syria’s war — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — agreed on Friday to work together on “stabilizing” Idlib. But they revealed few details.
A major obstacle to a substantive agreement, observers say, is the fate of terrorists in the province, including foreign hard-liners.


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 42 min 8 sec ago
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‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 

 

Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.


'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.