UN says Idlib offensive could spark 'worst humanitarian emergency'
The UN's director of humanitarian operations warned on Tuesday that a large-scale Syrian regime offensive in the last major rebel stronghold in the country "has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen" in the seven-year civil war.
John Ging called on members of the UN Security Council on Tuesday "to do all they can to ensure that we avoid this", as a regime military build-up around the opposition province is witnessed.
Syria's regime is gearing up for an expected offensive in Idlib province, which is home to nearly 3 million people in addition to Syrian rebel groups. It borders Turkey, which fears an offensive may trigger a humanitarian and security catastrophe.
Ging said recent weeks have seen "a further serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation" with intense bombing and shelling reported in parts of Idlib as well as Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces resulting in civilian deaths and destruction of schools and hospitals.
He said humanitarian organisations are trying to sustain their current response and prepare for a possible further deterioration, "but a worst-case scenario in Idlib will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis".
The US, UK and France have warned that they will respond "appropriately" to any chemical weapons attack in Idlib - a warning repeated to council members Tuesday by all three countries.
Meanwhile, Russia reiterated claims that Syrian rebel groups are preparing chemical weapons attacks, which Moscow says the West will use to justify a strike against Syrian forces.
Russia also claims British special forces are helping the rebels, including by possibly supplying chlorine, allegations vehemently denied by Britain's UN Ambassador Karen Pierce as "baseless" and "outlandish."
"Having heard their case," Pierce told reporters after the council meeting, "it's very clear to us and our partners that this is an effort to distract from an imminent attack on Idlib."
Pierce, the current Security Council president, was asked whether in closed consultations she saw any prospect that the 15 members would unite and respond to Ging's plea to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Idlib.
"The short answer is no, and that's very sad," she said. "In closed consultations the Russians backed off their original consultations a little bit. I'd like to think that that meant we might be able to get to a sensible outcome on Idlib in the council that helps protect civilians."
"But I'm afraid all the evidence so far is against us. We will still try," Pierce said.