Russia’s navy announced it will open “large-scale drills” in the Mediterranean on Saturday in the latest sign that a major Syrian government offensive against one of the last rebel strongholds in the country is imminent — a development that the United Nations warns could trigger a fresh refugee crisis in the Middle East nation’s 7-year-old civil war.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that he fears a “perfect storm” of violence in the rebel-held province of Idlib could devastate some 3 million civilians. Nearly half of them arrived in Idlib in recent years after fleeing violence in other corners of Syria.
The region is also a known hotbed of al Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The campaign has been telegraphed with remarkable openness and presents a clear challenge to the U.S. military presence battling Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
The State Department this week warned the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad that any sign of the use of chemical weapons on the assault would be met in a “swift and appropriate manner.”
The warning does not seem to be holding back Damascus or its chief ally, Moscow. At a Thursday press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem all but guaranteed an offensive is in the works to claim the last major enclave inside Syria not under Mr. Assad’s control.
“What we need to do now is to wipe out those terrorist groups which persist, particularly within [Idlib],” said Mr. Lavrov, accusing rebel groups within Idlib of targeting Russian bases with military drone attacks.
Mr. al-Muallem vowed that Syrian forces would “go all the way” to retake Idlib while insisting that the government would try to minimize civilian casualties, the Al-Jazeera network reported.
Mr. de Mistura proposed that civilians holed up in the northern province be allowed evacuate to other areas of the country they once fled. “Short of going to Turkey, the civilians have no other option in order not be where the fighting may take place,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Russia, the Assad regime’s strongest military backer, will wait for the evacuation. A movement of people could takes weeks or longer.
Mr. Lavrov said this week that Idlib represents “the last hotbed of terrorists” in Syria and asserted that jihadis are trying to hold the civilian population there “hostage as human shields and bend to their will [other] armed groups ready to engage in dialogue with the government.”
The situation raises difficult questions for Washington, which has claimed its own military victory against the Islamic State in Syria but faces accusations from Russia of tacitly supporting other militants — including some holed up Idlib — in a bid to prevent the Assad regime from consolidating its hold on power.
The region was hit by sporadic airstrikes and shelling in advance of a Russian Defense Ministry announcement Thursday that its forces will begin a “large-scale” Mediterranean Sea exercise that the Kremlin says is needed because of the failure to address the jihadi presence in Idlib.
Moscow said its forces will hold the Mediterranean drills through Sept. 8 with more than 25 warships and 30 aircraft, several of which are believed to operate from the coastal Syrian city of Tartus, home of the Russian navy’s most essential installation in the region.
Tracking Russian warships
The drills come amid a regional buildup of warships that Russian news outlets have described as the largest of its kind since Moscow’s forces entered the Syrian conflict in 2015.
Signs of the buildup have been on display for weeks. But the Russian Defense Ministry has remained evasive and appeared to spread false information in early August when the British Royal Navy revealed that it had scrambled to monitor two Russian warships and their support vessels passing in darkness through the English Channel.
At the time, the Russian Defense Ministry told the official Tass news service that the large anti-submarine destroyer Severomorsk and the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov were on a long-distance voyage from the Barents Sea to the Atlantic, where they would practice such maneuvers as “ship-damage control” and “assistance to seafarers in distress.”
But Russian officials revealed Thursday that the Marshal Ustinov will lead all other vessels in the Syria-related Mediterranean drills that start this weekend.
The Ustinov evidently cruised southward after its English Channel passage and eventually slipped through the Strait of Gibraltar before making what Russian news reports this week described as a “business call” at the port of Algiers.
U.S.-Russia blame game
U.S. officials have remained quiet about the Russian naval movements, although Thursday’s announcements by Moscow were matched by a Pentagon announcement that U.S. forces will stage their own weeklong regional war games next month with Egypt.
The Egyptian military said it will host the Americans for the second straight year for the “Bright Star” exercises starting Sept. 8, and U.S. Central Command said Thursday that approximately 800 U.S. troops will be on hand.
An estimated 2,000 U.S. military personnel remain inside Syria and have clashed with Russian and Russian-backed forces.
The tensions are underscored by the Trump administration’s determination to enforce a “red line” against chemical weapons in Syria.
Since April 2017, the administration has twice authorized American strikes targeting Syrian forces in response to chemical weapons attacks that U.S. officials blamed on the Assad regime.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that U.S. officials are privately pressing Russia to ensure no chemical attack occurs in Idlib — even as Russian officials insinuated that it’s the West that is likely staging a chemical assault of its own as a “false flag” pretext to once again strike Mr. Assad’s forces.
Such strikes would likely come in the form of American cruise missiles launched from Washington’s fleet of ships in the Mediterranean.
Analysts say Russian forces will take that factor into account during their air and sea exercises.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed Tuesday to have information that it is anti-Assad jihadi groups that are preparing a chemical attack in Idlib and that it will be videotaped by first responders known as the White Helmets, a Western-back humanitarian group that Russia has accused of fabricating attacks.
Western countries and many independent analysts dismiss the Russian allegations, which have added a murky twist to fears of a looming new humanitarian crisis in Syria, where more than 400,000 people have already been killed and some 5.5 million have fled their homes since the war began with the Assad regime’s use of military force to crush anti-regime demonstrations in 2011.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.