By Khaled Wassef CBS News September 7, 2018, 7:20 AM U.S. warns against "reckless" Syria assault in Idlib as Russia hammers rebels
Russian airstrikes resumed Friday morning in Syria, pounding rebel positions in Idlib province. Syrian government forces resumed shelling of rebels there. At least one person was killed and several others wounded. The attacks come amid repeated warnings from the U.S. against an all-out assault by Syria's Russian-backed forces to retake Idlib, the last major area held by the armed opposition in Syria.
Speaking Thursday at the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the Assad regime "and its backers must stop their military campaign in all its forms to allow the U.N.-led political process to have a chance to succeed."
"The Trump Administration and the international community have made it clear that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict," Haley told the Council, which was to hold another meeting Friday on the crisis in Idlib. President Bashar Assad's "brutal regime — backed by Russia and Iran — cannot continue to attack and terrorize Syria's citizens. With millions of civilians at risk, an offensive against Idlib would be a reckless escalation."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived Friday in Tehran for a key trilateral summit on Syria which could determine the fate of Idlib. Erdogan and Putin along with their Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani will hold a series of bilateral meetings before going behind closed doors for the trilateral talks.
Putin was to hold a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the sidelines of the summit, according to Russian news agency TASS.
Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said the leaders would focus on the situation in Idlib, and the expected chemical provocation in the area. Russia has suggested the rebels could use chemical weapons in a final battle for the rebel stronghold.
The U.S. and its allies, however, believe it is Assad's forces who appear to be preparing a chemical attack in Idlib.
The Trump administration's new envoy to Syria, Jim Jeffrey, told the Reuters news agency this week that he was "very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings" about an upcoming assault on Idlib, and that while "any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation. There is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared."
Earlier this week U.S. Ambassador Haley warned the Syrian regime, which has been accused repeatedly of using chemical weapons against its own people during the civil war, specifically against doing so again in Idlib. President Trump has previously labelled Assad an "animal" for using the banned weapons, and called Iran and Russia "responsible for backing" him.
The final statement of the summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran has already been finalized by senior representatives from the countries, according to Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Iran's top negotiator in the discussions. He told Iranian state-run TV on Thursday night that, "the final statement was finalized through negotiations in Tehran and if approved by the three presidents it will be rolled out as the final statement."
Turkish newspaper Sabah Gazetesi leaked highlights of the Turkish proposal on Idlib, indicating that Erdogan will propose a plan that would see Turkish forces on the ground who are already manning checkpoints around Idlib oversee the dissolution of 12 armed groups, including the former al Qaeda-affiliated group HTS.
Turkish proposals also included creating a safe corridor for fighters who hand their weapons over to the Turks to move to a buffer zone controlled by the Syrian opposition. Crucially, the plan would also guarantee the security of the Russian air base of Hmeimeem.
The outcome of the meeting will be closely watched by the U.S.
"We will find out to some degree tomorrow if the Russians are willing to come to a compromise with the Turks," U.S. envoy Jeffrey told Reuters on Thursday. "I think the last chapter of the Idlib story has not been written. The Turks are trying to find a way out. The Turks have shown a great deal of resistance to an attack."
Jeffrey warned of the risks of an offensive on the province and said the U.S. wouldn't "tolerate an attack (on Idlib), period!"
According to the UN, Idlib is home to about 2.9 million civilians, including 1.4 million displaced from other parts of Syria. There are an estimated 30,000 rebel fighters still in the area, including some 10,000 al-Qaeda-linked militants.