Russia Dampens Talk of Idlib Offensive…For Now

ussian troops in Deir ez-Zor Province in eastern Syria (File)

Russia’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, has played down talk of a pro-Assad offensive to overrun the last major opposition area, Idlib Province in the northwest of the country.

“I’d rather refrain from speaking about the city’s storming or a pending operation. There are too many rumors and they are ungrounded,” Lavrentyev said on Tuesday. “Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.”

The envoy was speaking after talks in the southern Russian city of Sochi, including Iran and Turkey and with the attendance of representatives of the Assad regime and Syrian rebels.

“We still hope that the moderate opposition and our Turkish partners, who took responsibility for stabilising this region, will manage it,” Lavrentiev said.

But he did leave open the possibility of a pretext for a pro-Assad assault, claiming attacks by “extremists” inside Idlib on regime areas: “The threat coming from this zone is still significant.”

The Assad regime has vowed to regain “every inch” of Syria, but relies on Russian aerial operations and Iranian-supported foreign troops on the ground for any advance.

Regime envoy Bashar Ja’afari maintained yesterday that there could be “no compromises or middle-way solutions regarding Syrian territory returning to the control of the Syrian government”.

He said the regime’s military would be within its rights to use force if a settlement cannot be reached.

Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, have proclaimed Idlib as a “de-escalation zone” since last year.

Moscow has broken the commitment to de-escalation in other areas, supporting the pro-Assad reoccupation of East Ghouta near Damascus and much of southern Syria since April. However, Turkey’s military presence in Idlib, with a ring of 11 observation posts, would complicate any pro-Assad offensive.

Opposition representative Ahmad Tohme said in Sochi that Idlib should move from “a de-escalation zone to a complete ceasefire zone”.

Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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