UN’s De Mistura calls for ceasefire — but also nods to Russia about “terrorists” and chemical weapons
In his first attempted intervention in month, the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura (pictured), has tried to call for a ceasefire over Idlib Province in northwest Syria — only to make comments that may be used by Russia and the Assad regime to justify an assault to retake the opposition territory.
Speaking in Geneva, De Mistura said there is no justification for the use of “heavy weapons”, but his framing of 10,000 “terrorists and their families” — a reference to fighters of the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham — is likely to be exploited by pro-Assad forces to rationalize attacks.
Russia has rationalized the breaking of a “de-escalation zone” — proclaimed last by Moscow, Turkey, and Iran — by saying that “terrorists” must be erased from Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo Provinces. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday that “militants” in the territory are a “festering abscess” to be eliminated.
Moscow and the regime used similar vague remarks by De Mistura about “terrorists” in autumn 2016 for a siege and deadly assault to reoccupy eastern Aleppo city.
Turkey, whose military personnel are alongside rebels in the area, has rejected the pretext for an assault in two high-level meetings with the Russians this month. Ankara has instead called for no military operations and a political resolution to deal with HTS, which includes the faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, known as Jabhat al-Nusra and linked to Al Qa’eda until July 2016.
De Mistura also called for no use of chemical weapons on Idlib. However, he weakened the statement by saying that both the Assad regime and HTS might resort to chlorine attacks — an assertion supporting Russian disinformation that rebels and White Helmets rescuers may be planning “false flag” operations.
HTS has never used chlorine in the 89-month conflict. In contrast, the Assad regime has been formally cited for several chlorine attacks and the use of sarin nerve agent in northwest Syria in spring 2017, and may have employed chlorine on up to 200 occasions.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, speaking during a meeting with Russian counterpart Lavrov in Moscow, immediately knocked back De Mistura:
We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.
I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them.
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moallem has now repeated the dubious allegation that "White Helmets" have "kidnapped" 44 children in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province in order to use them in an imminent purported "staged" chemical attack.
— Evan Kohlmann (@IntelTweet) August 30, 2018
HTS to Go — But Who Takes Control?
De Mistura appeared to be trying to back the line of a political path in which HTS would be disbanded and its fighters sent somewhere other than Idlib.
In discussions with Russia and inside Idlib, Turkey is reportedly seeking the dissolution of HTS, which has controlled much of the province since an offensive against rebel factions in 2017.
But there has been no clarity on who — including the opposition, the Assad regime, or outside powers — would oversee areas after HTS’s departure. Nor has there been an explanation of where the HTS fighters and families would go.
Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, closed its borders in 2016.
De Mistura did not deal with the issue, but instead suggested that civilians could be moved to regime-controlled areas — where as, in the pro-Assad reoccupation of East Ghouta near Damascus and much of southern Syria earlier this year — they could face detention, harassment, and forced conscription.
Meanwhile, he repeated his general appeal for political talks:
Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors [Russia, Iran, and Turkey]?…
The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days.
Rebels: De Mistura “Legalizes Military Attack”
We are concerned that the UN envoy’s statement legalizes the military attack by the Syrian regime and their sectarian militias, committing massacres against civilians. There are 4 million living in Idlib.
Why doesn’t he recognize the existence of tens of thousands who are joining terror-sectarian militias who commit massacres against civilians and use chemical weapons against our people?
Why doesn’t he announce that the Assad regime used chemical weapons? Where is the transparency of the UN? Where are the human rights?