The U.N. envoy for Syria warned Friday that all the ingredients exist for a "perfect storm" of a humanitarian catastrophe if the Syrian government, backed by Russia, carries out a large-scale military offensive on the northwestern province of Idlib.
"The dangers are profound that any battle for Idlib could be — would be — a horrific and bloody battle," Staffan de Mistura told U.N. Security Council members via videoconference. "Civilians are its potential victims."
Nearly 3 million people live in Idlib. Half of them have been displaced from other parts of Syria and moved to Idlib — which is a "de-escalation" zone encompassing parts of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama provinces — seeking safety. Along with the civilians, the United Nations estimates that 15,000 terrorist fighters are also in Idlib.
"Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international law, in the moral conscience of humanity," de Mistura reminded members. "We must put the sanctity of human civilian life above everything else."
Among Idlib's 3 million inhabitants are 1 million children.
"There are more babies in Idlib than terrorists, and that should give those engaging in military action pause for thought," said British Ambassador Karen Pierce.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is backed by Russia, and the Kremlin has repeatedly warned Western powers not to interfere in efforts to clear the area of the fighters.
"The Syrian authorities have the full right to fight for restoration of control throughout all of the country's territory," Russian U.N. envoy Vassily Nebenzia said. "Security Council resolutions explicitly state that no cessation-of-hostilities regime covers terrorist organizations. The fight against them needs to go on."
Russia, Iran and Turkey form a group known as the Astana Guarantors, which oversees what were originally four de-escalation zones in Syria, of which Idlib is the last remaining. They held a summit Friday in Tehran to try to find a way to avoid a military escalation.
"An effective solution would be a separation of armed opposition groups willing and desiring to participate in a political process, separating them from terrorists who remain a legitimate target for liquidation," Nebenzia said.
Nebenzia accused Western countries of "stoking hysteria" around Idlib and trying to prevent the fall of the last "major terrorist stronghold" in Syria. He dismissed concerns of a potentially disastrous humanitarian crisis, saying previous alarm bells over Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo did not have their "apocalyptic prognoses crystallized."
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged Russia to consider its options carefully.
"For Russia, continuing to support this murderous dictator, and isolating themselves from the international community, is the wrong choice," Haley said.
She urged Moscow to stop Assad's assault on Idlib and to work with Washington, the U.N. and international partners to find a political solution to the more than seven-year-long conflict. She said there were many ways to effectively target terrorist groups without causing a humanitarian catastrophe.
The U.N. has pre-positioned food aid and other supplies inside Syria and across the border from Idlib in southern Turkey in anticipation of a military offensive.
De Mistura said his diplomatic efforts would continue. He plans to meet Monday in Geneva with the Astana Guarantors and on Friday with Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.