GENEVA - Fearing a military offensive, the U.N. envoy for Syria proposed Thursday that civilians holed up in the rebel-held region of Idlib could evacuate to government areas - a move that would send many back into parts of Syria they once fled in its 7-1/2-year-old civil war.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura expressed fears of a “perfect storm” that could have a devastating impact on nearly 3 million people - nearly half of whom arrived from elsewhere in Syria - in the region largely controlled by al-Qaida-linked fighters. It came as Russia, President Bashar Assad’s strongest military backer, announced major military drills in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions over the enclave.
“Short of going to Turkey, the civilians have no other option in order not to be where fighting may take place,” de Mistura told reporters of the evacuation plan, which is in its early phases and will need to be discussed with regional players. Russia expressed openness to the idea.
The evacuation proposal reflected rising concerns that Idlib could become the site of the latest humanitarian disaster in a country that has faced many of them during a war that has killed over 400,000 people and driven more than 5.5 million to flee abroad.
De Mistura said a proposal would be a “temporary” measure so that “people can then return to their own places untouched once this is over.”
Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition’s delegation to U.N. talks with the government, called de Mistura’s proposal “unrealistic.”
“It’s very regrettable,” he said. “The special envoy’s role is not to call for a humanitarian corridor, but to call on Russia to stop the aggression.”
Idlib is the last remaining refuge for the Syrian opposition since President Bashar Assad’s forces began recapturing territory from rebels in 2015.
The country has been consumed by war since demonstrations broke out against Assad in 2011.