UNITED NATIONS - A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that Washington does not believe Russia will allow an all-out military offensive on the Syrian province of Idlib, which has been under Syrian government assault for the past month.
"Our conversations with the Russians have not indicated that the Russians are ready to support a full-scale offensive into Idlib," U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey told reporters. "They tell us that this is only a limited set of military operations against specific terrorists."
Jeffrey, who was in New York for a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on the political situation in Syria, said Washington's main concern is not the terrorists, but the civilians who are affected by the violence.
More than three million people live in Idlib, many of them displaced from other parts of the country. In September, a deal was struck with the assistance of Russia and Turkey to make the area a "de-escalation" zone, but in the past month, President Bashar al-Assad, with military support from Russia, has intensified ground and air attacks on the region.
The United Nations said this week that more than 160 civilians have been killed and 270,000 displaced in the escalation.
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) — formerly the al-Qaida affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra. The U.N. has warned for months that a full-scale military operation to root out the terrorists risks triggering a major humanitarian catastrophe.
"Too many people have been killed already and we need, obviously, an end to the fighting that is going on," said U.N. Syria Envoy Geir Pedersen. He acknowledged that HTS is dominating most of Idlib, but fighting the group, he said must be done with respect for international humanitarian law — which means protecting civilians.
The United Nations said earlier this month that 17 schools had been damaged or destroyed and at least 18 health facilities hit with aerial bombs, shelling or other fighting in recent weeks.
Only the Syrian government and the Russians have air assets in that part of Syria. Russia's deputy foreign minister denied his government is striking these facilities.
"We do not bomb hospitals," deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin told reporters. "We can tell you that what we do is smart, concrete and targeted operations against terrorists that are in control of [the] Idlib de-escalation zone."