U.N. Diplomats Warn Fight For Syria's Idlib Province Could Worsen

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 5, 2018 8:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As bad as the war has already been in Syria, it could get worse now in the fight for the last major rebel stronghold, Idlib. President Trump has weighed in on this, warning Syria's backers, Russia and Iran, not to take part in what he is calling a potential human tragedy. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, U.N. diplomats have also been sounding the alarm.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, says he needs more time, and he's urging Russia and Turkey, who he describes as two of the key stakeholders in the conflict over Idlib, to talk and to defuse the situation.

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STAFFAN DE MISTURA: We all continue to wish, to ask, to hope, to avoid the battle for Idlib. That remains our firm point.

KELEMEN: Russia, which supports the Syrian government, has already launched airstrikes, a sign, de Mistura says, that talks aren't going well, but he says too much is at stake. There are 2.9 million Syrians living in the Idlib region - 1 million of them children. And a U.N. adviser on humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, is sounding the alarm.

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JAN EGELAND: We could see a battle more cruel than any previous battle in this, the cruelest war of our generation.

KELEMEN: Egeland, who spoke to reporters in Geneva, says there are many more babies than terrorists in Idlib, adding for once he hopes that the men with guns and power put civilians first.

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EGELAND: Idlib is like no other place because this was the place where people fled because it was safe. Russia, Turkey and Iran said it was a de-escalation zone.

KELEMEN: Iran is hosting a summit with Turkey and Russia this Friday to discuss Idlib. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, says she's scheduled a Security Council meeting on Friday too and warning against any use of chemical weapons.

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NIKKI HALEY: If they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that, but they cannot do it with chemical weapons. They can't do it assaulting their people. And we're not going to fall for it. If there are chemical weapons that are used, we know exactly who's going to use them.

KELEMEN: Haley was refuting Russian claims that rebels plan to use chemical weapons. In any case, pro-government forces have already killed large numbers of civilians with conventional weapons in Syria. And diplomats are now scrambling to prevent that from happening again in Idlib. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "MY LONG GOODBYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.