Disinformation is rife about US plots and rebels supposed use of chemical weapons as Putin prepares for final victory
Russia is going to extraordinary lengths to justify in advance the murderous onslaught that observers fear is about to descend on Idlib, a province in north-west Syria that is home to nearly two million internally displaced people. Idlib is the last large populated area outside the control of Bashar al-Assad, Syrias dictator. And Assad, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, is determined to get it back whatever the human cost.
In a series of coordinated moves last week, Russian government officials and military spokesmen tried to pre-empt or deflect western opposition to the expected air and ground offensive. Partly it was pure propaganda. Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, accused the US of plotting forcible regime change in Damascus. Again, we are witnessing serious escalation of the situation, he claimed.
Unfortunately perhaps, this is disingenuous fantasy. A distracted Donald Trump has shown no interest in toppling Assad. He has ended support for rebel groups and given Vladimir Putin, Russias president, avirtual free hand. Airstrikes by the US, France and the UK after Assads chemical weapons attack on Douma in AprilWEBLINK proved to be an ineffective one-off. Trump has turned his back on Syria and plans to pull out the remaining US special forces fighting Islamic State as soon as possible.
The escalation is all on Russias side. It is assembling a naval armada off the Syrian coast, comprising 25 ships, combat aircraft and the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov the biggest show of force since Putin intervened in Syria in 2015. The fleet is ostensibly engaged in exercises. But Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlins spokesman, admitted the drills were directly linked to Idlib, which he termed a terrorist hotbed that must be tackled soon.
The Russia-Syria axis is stepping up its diplomatic offensive, too. Sergei Lavrov, Russias foreign minister, warned last week that militants in Idlib (he did not say who) must be liquidated, describing them as a festering abscess. Walid al-Moualem, Syrias foreign minister, who met Lavrov in Moscow the following day, was blunt: We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.
The Russian and Syrian regimes claimed to be solely concerned with fighting terrorism when defending their previous, indiscriminate missile, barrel bomb and artillery attacks on civilian residential areas, hospitals and schools, notably in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, which caused mass casualties. Yet according to the UN, of the three million people in the line of fire in Idlib, only about 10,000 are armed jihadists. In total, about 70,000 anti-regime rebels are cornered there.
Antnio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, expressed concern last week that a humanitarian catastrophe was looming, possibly even larger in scale than those elsewhere. And he reminded Turkey and Iran, Russias partners in the Astana peace process, that they had jointly designated Idlib a de-escalation zone meaning it should be protected.
But like all the other Russian-declared de-escalation zones, the Idlib region has already been attacked. According to the human rights advocacy group, the Syria Campaign, there has been a series of atrocities in recent weeks, including the bombing of Urem al-Kubra on 10 August that killed 39 people. Although Turkey, fearing another cross-border refugee influx, opposes any new offensive, its forces inside Syria appear powerless to prevent it.