Syrians brace as decisive battle for Idlib looms

By SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian opposition fighters blew up bridges Friday and dug trenches around their bases to impede an anticipated ground offensive on their last major stronghold in the country. They also called on residents to take up arms and support front-line fighters.

The looming battle for Idlib in northwestern Syria may be the last in the bloody seven years of conflict, which have backed hundreds of thousands of civilians into this deadly corner of the country with nowhere to run.

“This is our last chance to be free. The uprising is about to end,” said Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 33-year old English teacher, who is awaiting the imminent birth of his second child.

Idlib and the surrounding area is home to some 3 million people — nearly half of them, including Alhamdo, already displaced more than once by the civil war — choosing to live in opposition areas.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said 3 million Syrians “will suffer” from this aggression.

“The U.S. sees this (looming Russian-backed Syrian assault) as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict,” Pompeo tweeted.

U.N. officials believe an offensive on Idlib would trigger a wave of displacement that could uproot up an estimated 800,000 people and discourage refugees from returning home as they see a new wave of violence unfold.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, speaking in Lebanon after a visit to Damascus, said he had appealed to both sides in the conflict “to try to find a solution, a way forward” that spares civilians.

“If you have violent military action and loss of lives, you risk of course many deaths … a human catastrophe,” he told reporters. “But you risk also sending a message to refugees that the situation is not secured. (They) will be watching very carefully what is happening in Idlib in the next few months.”

Thousands of government troops and allied fighters have been amassing in areas surrounding Idlib. Russia has said a military operation there is necessary to weed out “terrorists” it blames for attacking its bases on the coast.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces have deployed at least 2,000 armored vehicles along the front lines surrounding Idlib and Hama.

An offensive is likely to first strike southwest Idlib and al-Ghab plains, which overlook the coastal area where Russia has its military and naval bases. Another front for the offensive is from the south and southeast, which would restore government control over an essential highway that runs between Syria’s major cities.