UPDATE 1415 GMT: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spoken forcefully against a pro-Assad assault to recapture Idlib Province.
During a visit to Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, Erdoğan said, “God forbid, a serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles there.”
The Turkish President meets Iranian and Russian counterparts in Tehran on Friday.
He spoke of the necessity of a working relationship with Russia, which is pressing for the offensive to break a “de-escalation zone” proclaimed by Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran last year: “Our cooperation with Russia now is very important. The United States sends the ball into the corner of Russia and Russia into the corner of the US.”
But he focused on the displacement that would be caused by the offensive’s “very merciless process”: “3.5 million people live there. God forbid, it is again Turkey where those people will flee in case of a disaster.”
Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees and closed its borders in 2016.
Russian and Assad regime warplanes bombed Idlib Province, the last major opposition-held area of Syria, on Tuesday.
Civil defense said at least 31 airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles attacked near Jisr al-Shughour, in northwest Idlib close to the Turkish border. Local sources said at least 13 civilians were killed, including at least five children.
Local resident and activist Mohammad Abdullah said, “There have only been a handful of missiles and airstrikes in the past month. We haven’t seen anything like this for the last five months.”
Observers speculated on motives for the assault inside the “de-escalation zone”, proclaimed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran last year. Some saw a response by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump’s Monday tweet, “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province.” Others spoke of a signal ahead of Friday’s meeting of Putin with the Iranian and Turkish Presidents in Tehran.
There was no sign — yet — that the bombing was the start of a pro-Assad ground offensive to reoccupy the province with an estimated 3 million people, about half displaced from other parts of Syria.
Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime have been putting out disinformation and applying political pressure for an assault. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and spoke of “cleaning out” Idlib. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his call to “liquidate terrorists”, removing a “festering abscess”.
— Riam Dalati (@Dalatrm) September 4, 2018
— Riam Dalati (@Dalatrm) September 4, 2018
The Assad regime’s “Reconciliation” Minister Ali Haidar told Russian State outlet Sputnik, “Military action is more likely than reconciliations” because of the large number of fighters in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama Provinces.
A Russian-regime offensive has been checked so far by Turkish opposition. Ankara’s military forces moved alongside rebels through northwest Syria from August 2016, initially pushing out the Islamic State and then taking much of the Kurdish canton of Afrin.
On two occasions last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held off Lavrov’s pressure, saying that while “terrorists” should be removed, this should not by bombing and a ground assault.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said yesterday that he understands the Assad regime has set a deadline of September 10 for rebel capitulation to avoid an offensive.
Putting aside Trump’s tweet, the White House appeared on Tuesday to accept an offensive with conventional air and ground attacks.
“If President Bashar al-Assad chooses to again use chemical weapons, the United States and its allies will respond swiftly and appropriately,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. She did not extend the warning to non-chemical attacks.
US Ambasssador Nikki Haley issued a similar statement and said the Security Council will discuss the situation on Friday.
Here's video of Nikki Haley saying this of the Syrian regime: “If they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that, but they can not do it with chemical weapons." pic.twitter.com/F7y1bNvO2n
— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) September 4, 2018
I know it's all kinda futile, but implication of US drawing up "preliminary list of Syrian chemical weapons facilities that could be struck" is that we've given up on holding Syria to the disarmament agreements of 2013. https://t.co/Q2h7JcESBw
— Tobias Schneider (@tobiaschneider) September 5, 2018
The Kremlin dismissed Washington again on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib is a “nest of terrorism”: “We know that Syria’s armed forces are preparing to resolve this problem.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi marched in step, “Terrorist groups have mixed with the people. They are using people as human shields.”