‘Syrian regime’s Idlib assault not genuine campaign against terror’ – Turkey’s Erdoğan

The Syrian government’s likely offensive against the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, would not be a genuine effort to combat terrorism, but an attempt to wipe out the opposition in the area, creating an immense humanitarian disaster, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

“Today we find ourselves at a critical juncture again, as the Assad regime, with the help of its allies, prepares to launch a massive offensive against Idlib, which is home to some three million people and one of the few remaining safe havens for internally displaced Syrians,” Erdoğan said.

He said Turkey had 12 observation posts in Idlib, in line with an agreement reached between Turkey, Russia, and Iran, the three guarantor countries of the Astana process launched to explore a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria. 

Erdoğan said that while Syrian President Bashar Assad justified the expected Russian and Iranian-backed offensive in Idlib on the grounds of combating terrorism, it would only create new hotbeds for terrorist and extremist groups.

He said terrorist groups in Idlib, including the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which the Syrian government aims to wipe out, accounted for only a fraction of the population living in the enclave. 

“In order to eliminate terrorist and extremist elements in Idlib and to bring to justice foreign fighters, a more comprehensive international counterterrorism operation is necessary,” he said. 

Erdoğan said Turkey’s offensives in northern Syria were carried out “without harming or displacing civilians” and were examples of a responsible approach to counterterrorism.

But the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in April that 137,070 people had been displaced from the northwestern Syrian district of Afrin as a result of Turkey’s two-month offensive there that ended in March. 

Erdoğan called all members of the international community, Europe and the United States, as well as Russia and Iran, to grasp their responsibilities in case of an assault in Idlib, saying, “the consequences of inaction are immense". 

“The purpose of a regime offensive against Idlib would be indiscriminate attacks to wipe out its opposition, not a genuine or effective campaign against terrorism. A regime assault would also create serious humanitarian and security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond,” Erdoğan said.

In addition to Turkey’s efforts to prevent a bloodbath in Idlib, “the rest of the world must set aside narrow self-interest and throw its weight behind a political solution,” Erdoğan said.