- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2018

President Trump warned Syria on Wednesday not to launch a “slaughter” of millions of innocent civilians trapped by government forces in the country’s last major rebel-held enclave, while denying an account in a new tell-all book that he wanted to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad last year in the wake a suspected chemical attack on rebel positions.

“There cannot be a slaughter,” Mr. Trump said of the crisis in Syria‘s Idlib province, where rebel forces and millions of Syrian civilians have taken refuge in the face of major government advance this year. “If it’s a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry and the United States is going to get very angry, too.”

But the offensive is already underway: The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that four of its jets bombed a weapons depot and launch pad for drones used by an al Qaeda offshoot based in Idlib. Moscow accuses the militants of deploying the drones to target Russian military bases in Syria.

The president’s comments came as the 10 non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council issued a joint statement Wednesday urging a peaceful solution in Idlib, where a major Syrian military offensive with Russian and Iranian backing has been building for months.

While Russia, which holds a permanent seat on the council, did not support the statement, the non-permanent members warned that a full-scale military operation will lead to “a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Ambassador the U.N. Nikki R. Haley also said she’ll chair a Security Council meeting Friday on the Idlib crisis, asserting that the Assad “regime and its backers must stop their military campaign in all its forms” and allow U.N.-led political negotiations over Syria to proceed.

However, the presidents of Russia and Iran — the Assad regime’s main backers — are preparing to hold their own summit Friday in Tehran with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Idlib and the future of Syria after more than seven years of civil war.

While Idlib is home to as many as 3 million people, including refugees driven from their homes elsewhere in Syria, it is also a known hotbed of jihadists. Syrian officials say one group, the Nusra Front, formerly the local branch of al Qaeda in Syria, is the central target of the impending offensive.

It remains to be seen whether the Syrian forces will hold back amid the current international outcry. Friday’s tripartite summit in Tehran will mark the third time Mr. Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have held official talks on Syria without the U.S. present.

Turkey remains a NATO ally and Mr. Erdogan called Wednesday on the Assad regime to hold back in Idlib.

“God forbid, a serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles there,” the Turkish president said.

But Moscow appears to backs a more aggressive offensive. Russian naval and air forces have been building up in the Mediterranean, and the Kremlin said Monday that Mr. Putin plans to discuss on Friday measures “aimed at finally liquidating the hotbed of international terrorism” in Syria.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said Idlib had the potential to be a humanitarian catastrophe.

“The lives of millions of people in Idlib are now in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran — the three countries with the most influence over the parties involved in the conflict in Idlib,” Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Campaigns Samah Hadid said Wednesday, calling on “all parties to the conflict” to grant safe passage to civilians wishing to flee Idlib and allow “unimpeded access to humanitarian relief.”

At the White House, Mr. Trump described Idlib as “a very sad situation.”

“It’s surrounded by a lot of people with a lot of weapons,” he said, adding that the Assad regime and its backers “feel that they have 35,000 of their enemy there, and yet you have 3 million people living there.”

Mr. Trump has ordered two series of air strikes against Syrian forces in the past 18 months in response to Syria‘s use of chemical weapons against civilians. The U.S. has said it is prepared to strike again if the regime deploys chemical weapons in Idlib, but has not explicitly said it would intervene to stop a government offensive.

Journalist Bob Woodward in his book on the Trump White House has reported that Mr. Trump implored Defense Secretary James Mattis to kill Mr. Assad after a chemical weapons attack in Syria in April 2017 that left hundreds of civilians dead, including children. The president dismissed the allegation Wednesday.

Asked by reporters if he ordered Mr. Assad assassinated, Mr. Trump replied, “Not at all. Uh, never even discussed. The book is fiction. That was never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated. And it should not have been written about in the book.”

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