France ready to strike Syria if chem-weps used
IDLIB, Syria, Sept 6, (Agencies): Hundreds of Syrian civilians fled Idlib province on Thursday as the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey readied for last ditch talks on the fate of the last rebel bastion. Government forces and their allies have been massing around Idlib, where aid groups fear what could be the last major battle of Syria’s seven-year civil war may also prove its deadliest.
Western powers have warned against a bloodbath but Damascus and Moscow are adamant that an offensive is needed to root out the jihadists who dominate the province. Sporadic bombardment has targeted armed groups on Idlib’s fringes in recent days, and on Thursday families began streaming out of their battered hometowns to seek safety elsewhere.
Trucks piled high with mattresses, metal pipes, plastic tanks and wicker mats could be seen heading towards camps near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. “We left because of the shelling, the crazy indiscriminate shelling,” said Abu Naser, who fled on the back of one such truck. “We don’t know where to head now. So many people fled — what are we supposed to do, sit under the shelling and airplanes?
Another group of hundreds of families fled the province’s southeast for other rebel-held areas, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said “around 180 families, or some 1,000 people” had escaped those areas since Wednesday night, heading to rebel territory further east.
They were fleeing Syrian artillery and Russian bombardment on villages that lie close to government-held areas and would therefore be most vulnerable to the early phase of an assault.
Artillery fire also killed one civilian and wounded six more, added the Britain-based war monitor.
The number displaced so far is tiny compared with the 800,000 that the United Nations fears may be thrown onto the roads, more than a quarter of the rebel zone’s population. Warning of the risks of a regime assault on Idlib, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the rebel-held enclave as a “ticking time bomb, both in humanitarian and security terms”.
Save the Children said more violence would have “devastating consequences” for Syria’s young. “During seven years of war, these children have seen and experienced things that no child ever should,” said its chief Helle Thorning-Schmidt, calling on the warring parties in Idlib to “pull back from the brink”.
The UN, world powers, and aid groups hope a summit on Friday between the presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey — the three main powerbrokers in Syria — can avert an assault. France’s top military official meanwhile said on Thursday his forces were prepared to carry out strikes on Syrian targets if chemical weapons were used in an expected government offensive to retake the northern province of Idlib.
Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, resumed air strikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday after weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-government Syrian forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the last major enclave held be rebels. “We are ready to strike if chemical weapons were used again,” Armed
Forces Chief Francois Lecointre told a small group of reporters. “They can be carried out at national level but it’s in our interest to do it with as many partners as possible.” In April, France, the United States and Britain launched more than 100 missiles at pro-government targets in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack.
The prospect of an offensive on Idlib alarms aid agencies. The United Nations has said about half of the 3 million people living in rebel-held areas of the northwest have already been displaced.
It estimates some 10,000 jihadists are in the area. Lecointre said he expected the final pockets of Islamic State resistance in Syria and Iraq to be defeated by the end of November.
Idlib’s fate now appears likely to rest on a summit on Friday in Tehran between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran — a meeting that Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said would make the situation “clearer”.