UN Syria envoy offers to negotiate ceasefire in last rebel stronghold

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura asks for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians

The UN special envoy for Syria has offered to travel to the country’s last opposition stronghold in the north of the country in an attempt to negotiate a ceasefire.

Staffan de Mistura called for all sides to allow time for humanitarian corridors to be set up, amid signs that the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian air force, is preparing to mount a major attack on Idlib. Mistura wants to avert an assault that could lead to death and destruction on the scale that that saw thousands killed in Aleppo last year.

(March 1, 2011) 

Unprecedented protests demand civil liberties and the release of political prisoners after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad family. The regime represses demonstrations in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa but protests continue.

(July 1, 2011) 

Defecting army colonel Riad al-Asaad sets up the Turkey-based rebel Free Syrian Army. Islamist groups join the revolt.

(March 1, 2012) 

Regime forces take control of the rebel stronghold in Homs after a month of bombardment. Other bloody operations are carried out, notably in the central city of Hama, after massive anti-regime protests.

(August 1, 2013) 

More than 1,400 people die in a chemical weapon attack on rebel-held districts near Damascus.

(September 1, 2013) 

The US and Assad ally Russia agree a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, averting punitive US strikes against the regime.

(January 1, 2014) 

Hostilities between jihadists and rebel groups turn into an open war in the north. The group that will become known as Islamic State takes Raqqa – the first provincial capital to fall out of regime control – from rebel forces.

(September 1, 2014) 

A US-led coalition launches airstrikes against Isis in Syria. The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, which since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas.

(September 1, 2015) 

Russia launches airstrikes in support of Assad's troops, who are on the back foot. Russian firepower helps turn the tables for the regime, which begins to retake rebel-held territory.

(December 1, 2016) 

The regime retakes Syria's second city, Aleppo.

(January 1, 2017) 

Russia and Iran, as backers of the Syrian regime, and Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, organise talks in Kazakhstan, between representatives of both sides. The process leads to the creation of four "de-escalation zones".

(April 1, 2017) 

A sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people, prompting Washington to attack a regime airbase.

(January 1, 2018) 

Further complicating an already drawn-out conflict, Turkey launches an operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units which, with US support, played a key role in beating back Isis.

(February 1, 2018) 

Regime launches a ferocious assault on the remaining rebel-held enclave near Damascus, eastern Ghouta. In under four weeks, the Russian-backed onslaught kills more than 1,200 civilians.

(December 20, 2018) 

US president Donald Trump surprises advisors and allies alike by declaring victory over the Islamic State and promising to withdraw US troops from the conflict

(March 23, 2019) 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announce that they have driven Isis out of their final stronghold of Baghuz. At least 11,000 SDF fighters, a Kurdish-led militia which includes Arab, Syriac and Turkmen units, have died in the four-year military campaign against the group in Syria. 

(June 9, 2019) 

Britain and France agree to deploy additional special forces in Syria to allow the US to withdraw its ground troops from the fight against remaining Isis forces in the country.

(August 20, 2019) 

Rebels withdraw from Khan Sheikhun in north-west Syria, clearing the way for pro-government forces to enter the town – a key moment in the war for Idlib province, the country’s last major rebel stronghold.

“I am once again prepared … personally and physically to get involved myself … to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so that they can then return to their own places once this is over,” De Mistura said in Geneva.

He made a similar offer to break the siege of Aleppo last year, but this was spurned by Assad.

De Mistura acknowledged there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 terrorists, but said it would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle that could prove to be a “perfect storm”.

He also warned that chemical weapons may be used by the government.

Many Syrian opposition supporters, including some in Islamist extremist groups, have been decanted in buses to Idlib over the past year as other towns fell to Assad. The process has set the scene for an inevitable final battle between the remnants of the opposition and the Syrian regime.

“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,” De Mistura said.

It is not clear where any refugees from Idlib would travel inside Syria since the country is now largely under Assad’s control. De Mistura said: “It would be a tragic irony, frankly, if at almost the end of … a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians.”

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, said government forces would “go all the way” in Idlib, and claimed Damascus’s chief target was Islamist militants, mainly from Al-Nusra Front.

Moualem, speaking after talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said Syria would not use chemical weapons in any offensive and that it did not have such weapons. There have been widespread US warnings that the Syrian military are preparing to use chemical weapons as it is has done in the past to crush opposition forces.

The US government has promised it will intervene again if any evidence emerges that chemical weapons have been used.

In an attempt to avert a US attack, likely to be mounted via cruise missiles fired from a US fleet stationed in the Mediterranean, Russia announced it was beginning its own major naval exercise in the Mediterranean on Saturday, a move the Kremlin said was justified by a failure to deal with militants in Idlib province.

“This hotbed of terrorists [in Idlib] does really not bode anything good if such inaction continues,” the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

The Russian defence ministry said more than 25 warships and support vessels and around 30 planes, including fighter jets and strategic bombers, would take part in the Mediterranean drills from 1 to 8 September.

They would involve anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-mining exercises. Ships from Russia’s northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets would take part, as would vessels from its Caspian Sea flotilla. The Marshal Ustinov guided-missile cruiser would lead the drills.

“In the interests of ensuring the safety of shipping and air traffic and in line with international law, the areas of the exercise will be declared dangerous for shipping and flights,” the ministry said.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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