The UN says more than a million children are at risk from pro-Assad attacks on Idlib Province in northwest Syria — but Russia says the offensive must proceed despite a “de-escalation zone”.

Manuel Fontaine, director of emergency programs for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said on Friday after talks this week with the Assad regime’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad:

It’s more than one million kids….When you hear the kind of military rhetoric about an offensive and all that, I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just against a group of armed men.

It’s actually a very large proportion of women and children who have no stake in it, and elderly men and others.

Fontaine said UNICEF has drawn up contingency plans, including for clean water and nutritional supplies, to some of the estimated 450,000 to 700,000 people who may flee attacks.

The UN estimates that aobut 2.9 million people, half of them displaced from other parts of Syria, are now in Idlib.

See Syria Daily, August 31: UN’s De Mistura Stumbles Into Idlib
Syria Pictures: Protests Across Idlib As Russia & Assad Regime Threaten Attacks

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued his pretext for the offensive by the Assad regime and its allies, declaring on Friday that the Assad regime had every right to chase “terrorists” — Moscow’s term for all rebels opposed to the regime — out of the province.

On Wednesday, Lavrov said the presence of “militants” in Idlib was a “festering abscess” that must be eradicated.

As with other assaults, such as on eastern Aleppo city in autumn 2016 and on East Ghouta near Damascus this spring, Lavrov said yesterday that there were discussions on “humanitarian corridors” for people to escape the fighting.

Fontaine said, “We are not part of a discussion on humanitarian corridors at this stage. But I think what is important for us is that people who want to be able to move can move as long as they want to do it and they do it in safety and security.”

With the Turkish border closed since 2016, Fontaine said people are expected to move towards the remaining opposition areas in western Aleppo and northern Hama Provinces, as well as parts of Homs Province that were reoccupied by pro-Assad forces in the spring. He warned:

There’s some children who have been displaced seven times already, going from one place to the other. It means that their coping mechanisms, their resilience is very drained at the moment so they are particularly vulnerable. That’s a major concern obviously.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran proclaimed a “de-escalation zone” for northwest Syria last year; however, Moscow is signalling that it will break the commitment, as it did with the pro-Assad offensives on East Ghouta and on opposition territory in southern Syria between February and July.

The main barrier to an offensive, for now, is Turkey. Twice in talks with Lavrov last month, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held out against ground and aerial attacks.

Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, fears the pressure brought by more displacements. Its military have been alongside rebels since summer 2016 in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama Provinces, and earlier this year Turkish forces estabished a ring of 12 observation posts around the area.

On Friday, Turkey maneuvered to label the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as the “extremist” threat while holding out against an offensive.

Ankara designated HTS’s largest faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as linked to Al Qa’eda, even though the group — then known as Jabhat al-Nusra — formally revoked allegiance in July 2016.

Çavuşoğlu, meeting European Union foreign ministers in Vienna, said:

There is an extremist group here. They were deployed here from Aleppo and we are well aware of them. We have to work together in separating these groups from civilians and eliminating them. This is the healthiest and most efficient way.

Otherwise there could be very serious problems from the humanitarian, security, and political settlement perspectives.

US: Idlib Attacks Are Escalation of Conflict

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued warning on Friday against any Idlib attacks, saying they would be an escalation of the Syrian conflict.

The State Department said the US will respond to any chemical attack by the Assad regime, while making no specific commitment about the use of conventional weapons from the air and on the ground.

Pompeo used Twitter for his message:

The State Department said the new US envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey and a delegation, will use a four-day trip to Israel, Jordan, and Turkey from Saturday to “underscore that the United States will respond to any chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian regime”, and to “address Russia’s specious allegations of international plans to stage a chemical weapons attack in Syria”.