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France warns of 'humanitarian disaster' if Syria targets Idlib

With Eastern Ghouta captured, the government is free to target the remaining enclaves of Idlib or Daraa
Idlib is home to large numbers of people displaced by the conflict elsewhere in Syria (Reuters)

A new humanitarian disaster is looming in Syria's northern Idlib region, French Foreign Minister Jena-Yves Le Drian warned on Sunday, as the Syrian government looks for its next target after claiming victory in Eastern Ghouta.

The rebel-held region, one of the last remaining outside of the government’s control, is considered a likely next target of a Syrian army assault.

In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche weekly a day after the US, Britain and France carried out strikes in Syria, Le Drian said: "There are two million people in Idlib now, including hundreds of thousands of Syrians evacuated from rebel towns recaptured by the regime.

"There is a risk of a new humanitarian disaster."

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Held by an array of militants and rebels, Idlib province has been the destination of many rebel fighters and civilians evacuated from opposition-strongholds further south in negotiated deals that have seen territory handed over to the government in return for safe passage.

Speaking in Damascus this week, a senior Iranian official said he hoped Idlib would be the next area to be "liberated" by Iran ally President Bashar al-Assad, after the Syrian army's recapture of the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus with Russian backing.

The vicious battle for Eastern Ghouta wound up shortly after a suspected chemical attack killed over 40 people in Douma, the last remaining rebel-held town there.

The West blamed Assad's forces for the chemical attack. Assad and Russia flatly denied the allegation.

'It's likely the Syrian government will head south'

On Saturday, just hours after the strikes, the Syrian army declared all opposition fighters had left the town of Douma and it had taken complete control of Eastern Ghouta.

"All terrorists have left Douma, the last of their holdouts in Eastern Ghouta," state news agency SANA quoted an army spokesman as saying Saturday, using the regime's usual term for rebels.

"Areas of Eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus have been fully cleansed of terrorism," an army spokesman also said in a statement delivered on state television.

With the offensive for Ghouta now complete, the Syrian army can turn its attention to other rebel areas that have held out in the country’s seven-year civil war.

Idlib, the largest rebel region on Syria’s border with Turkey, is one possibility. But some analysts suggest Daraa, a town to the south of Damascus and the birthplace of the revolution that has challenged Assad’s power, could be next.

Syrian soldiers take part in an offensive on Idlib, February 2018 (AFP)
"The liberation of Eastern Ghouta means lifting the security and military threat posed to Damascus," said Bassam Abou Abdallah, who heads the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies.

"After Ghouta, it's likely the Syrian government will head south – the current situation in Daraa must be finished off," he said. 

But with Daraa sitting near the Israeli border, analysts also say Assad's regime will have to avoid any escalation with Israel. 

"The areas in the south of Syria are particularly sensitive because they are located between Damascus on the one hand, and the Jordanian and Israeli borders on the other," analyst Sam Heller said.

"Any military action could affect the national security of the three countries," said the researcher at the International Crisis Group.

France calls for new ceasefire

Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh, said Daraa was the obvious next step for the government after Ghouta, over Idlib.

"Daraa is probably more urgent for economic reasons and reopening trade with Jordan." 

Le Drian said he hoped Saturday's strikes, aimed at punishing the government over its alleged use of toxic gas, would convince Russia to pressure Assad into negotiations on ending the war.

"We hope that Russia understands ... we must combine our efforts to promote a political process in Syria that favours an end to the crisis.

The areas in the south of Syria are particularly sensitive

- Sam Heller, analyst

"France is ready to work towards this. Except that currently the one blocking the process is Bashar al-Assad himself. It's up to Russia to put pressure on him," he said.

Le Drian said the first step would be "to begin with a ceasefire which is really respected this time".

He was referring to a 30-day ceasefire called by the UN in February to facilitate the delivery of aid and medical evacuations, which was never really implemented.

On Saturday, the US, France and Britain on Saturday launched a new push at the UN for a ceasefire.

In a draft text seen by AFP news agency they also called for a mechanism to probe chemical attacks - and also ascribe blame for them - and demanded that Syria engage in stalled UN-led peace talks.

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