Sun, 21 Apr 2019

UNITED NATIONS - Nikki Haley said Tuesday the United States would consider any large-scale military assault on the Syrian governorate of Idlib as a 'reckless escalation' of the war and called on Russia to prevent a 'catastrophe' there.

'Russia has the power to stop the catastrophe looming in Idlib,' the U.S. ambassador and member of President Donald Trump's cabinet told the U.N. Security Council. 'They have the power to stop the killing.'

Some 3 million civilians are living in Idlib and the U.N. repeatedly has warned that there will be a humanitarian catastrophe if there is a military escalation there.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks to members of the media at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 10, 2018.

Tuesday's council meeting was called by Russia to brief on the outcome of last week's summit of Russia, Iran and Turkey - the group known as the Astana guarantors. The troika originally oversaw four de-escalation zones in Syria that were supposed to be safer for civilians. They included parts of Idlib, Hama, Eastern Ghouta and southern Syria. Only Idlib remains - the others have been militarily brought back under regime control.

'Russia, Iran and [Bashar al-] Assad are demolishing Idlib and asking us to call it peace,' Haley told the third council meeting on Idlib in the past week. 'But here's the reality: Astana has failed. It has failed to stop the violence or to promote a political solution.'

She warned of potential military escalation and said that if the regime of Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, continue on this path, 'the consequences will be dire.'

Chemical weapons

Haley also repeated her warning that Washington would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.

FILE - A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria, Sept. 3, 2018.

For weeks, the Russians have been accusing the West of conspiring to carry out a chemical weapons attack through rebel groups and the civil society first responders the White Helmets. Russia regularly disparages the group.

Moscow's envoy fired back, accusing some council members of escalating rhetoric.

'The wordings started sounding basically along the lines that saying force against a sovereign state - Syria - can be used, and not only related to alleged use of chemical weapons, but basically also if there is a military operation in Idlib,' Vassily Nebenezia said. 'We are not talking about a military operation, it's an anti-terrorist operation.'

The Russian ambassador noted that de-escalation zones initially were created as 'temporary entities,' not permanent ones. 'Sooner or later, they were to be replaced, first by local truces, and in those cases where that did not take place, by an anti-terrorist operation, which happened in other de-escalation areas, which are currently under the control of Syrian authorities.'

Nebenzia dismissed plans by the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons, saying they no longer had any, and if they did use them, it would be an 'invitation' to Britain, France and the United States to strike the country. He also claimed to have 'irrefutable proof' that the Syrian opposition was planning a chemical attack, but he did not offer it.

Syrian children ride in the back of a truck loaded with furniture and a motorcycle, driving along the main Damascus-Aleppo highway near the town of Saraqib in Syria's mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province, as families flee north from the countrysides of Hama and Idlib provinces from government forces bombardment, Sept. 11, 2018.

'Humanitarian catastrophe'

Turkey, which is part of the Astana group, is deeply concerned that a full-scale military operation on the northwestern governorate could send thousands more refugees fleeing into their territory. Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrians and its hospitality has been stretched to its limit.

'There is no doubt that an all-out military operation would result in a major humanitarian catastrophe,' Turkey's U.N. envoy Feridun Hadi Sinirlioglu told the council. 'Such an operation would trigger a massive wave of refugees and tremendous security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond.'

He said that at the Astana summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan underlined the need to preserve the Idlib de-escalation zone and called for an immediate cease-fire.

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