Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Syria has acknowledged it is preparing an all-out offensive against rebel fighters in Idlib Province as its ally Russia plans major naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions with the West in the region.
After speaking with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on August 30 that his country's military "will go all the way" in Idlib and that the "primary target" will be the Al-Nusra Front, which has had links to Al-Qaeda.
The Jabhat al-Nusra, or Al-Nusra Front, was the name of a militant group that was described as Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. In 2016, it shed its status as Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and changed its name to Fateh al-Sham Front.
The comments come amid growing concerns from the United Nations and the West about the dangers to the civilian population of a major military offensive in the densely populated province.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 29 repeated the UN's warning "about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation” in Idlib, the last major stronghold of Syrian Sunni rebels.
Guterres appealed to the Syrian government, Russia, and all other parties "to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians."
Moualem told reporters that the Syrian military "will do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties" in its offensive in Idlib.
In response to warnings from the United States, Britain, and France against the potential use of chemical weapons, Moualem claimed that Syria’s army has no need to use and does not have such weapons.
Investigations by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have determined that Syrian government forces have used both sarin and chlorine in attacks on rebel forces. Syria has denied the allegations.
Lavrov said after his meeting with Moualem that "it is unacceptable when terrorists who are gathered there try to use [Idlib] to carry out attacks.”
Russia often refers to any armed opponent of the Syrian government as a "terrorist."
Earlier on August 30, the Russian Defense Ministry announced plans to launch major naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean later this week, with Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov saying the difficult situation in Syria justified carrying out the naval drills.
The drills will be carried out from September 1 to September 8 and will involve 25 warships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 aircraft, the Defense Ministry said on August 30.
The ministry said the maneuvers will focus on antiaircraft, antisubmarine, and demining exercises.
Russia has cited the warning from Western powers in accusing the United States of building up its own forces in the Middle East in preparation for a possible strike on Syrian government forces -- something the Pentagon has denied.
Lisa Schlein - VOA News
The U.N. refugee agency reports it is scaling up its operation in Yemen to meet the urgent protection needs of thousands of Yemenis displaced by fighting in the strategic port city of Hodeidah.
More than 300,000 people have fled their homes since the Saudi-led coalition began its military offensive in June to capture the Houthi-held port city of Hodeidah.
So far, U.N. and international pressure has prevented an all-out attack on the port itself, a situation that most agree would be calamitous. About 80 percent of all food and humanitarian aid is imported through this Red Sea port. Were it to be knocked out, the U.N. fears this could trigger a famine throughout the country.
The conflict has escalated significantly over the past three months. The U.N. refugee agency reports this is increasing the dangers for civilians trying to leave conflict areas. UNHCR spokesman, William Spindler, said some people are particularly vulnerable and in need of urgent protection.
“Most prominent among them are the specific needs of children who may be separated from their families, and of women, who may be at risk of sexual harassment and violence either during flight or when living in overcrowded settings,” Spindler said.
“Another common concern is the loss of livelihoods, exacerbated by a decline in purchasing power due to increasing food prices, and the decline in value of the Yemeni currency, the riyal,” Spindler added.
Spindler said UNHCR and partners have identified more than 70,000 of the most vulnerable displaced people throughout the country. He says they are being provided with a wide-range of assistance, including multipurpose cash, rental subsidies and referrals to specialized services, such as psychological counseling and legal assistance.