The US is alarmed over Assad Idlib offensive. It called for a new ceasefire in Syria as rival forces clashed in the country’s northwest on the last big stretch of rebel-held territory.
Assad launched his assault late last month, saying rebels had breached an existing ceasefire. In doing so, he triggered a civilian exodus by bombarding Idlib and adjacent areas. The latest clashes mark the biggest escalation since last summer between Assad and his rebel enemies in Idlib province.
Late on Tuesday, Washington said it had seen signs that Assad may be using chemical weapons; including an alleged chlorine attack, in the latest offensive. It warned that it would respond “quickly and appropriately” if evidence showed its use. Assad has denied such accusations throughout the war even with overwhelming evidence against him.
James Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, said at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing:
What we really need in Idlib and throughout the country is a ceasefire. These conflicts, back and forth exchanges …. just put tremendous pressure on civilians, they raise the specter of nation-to-nation clash. So we’re very much engaged in trying to get this stopped and get it back to the ceasefire we had basically since September.
ASSAD USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS
However, fighting raged on Wednesday as rebels rolled back army advances in the face of a heavy bombardment. Weeks of air strikes, shelling and clashes have driven some 180,000 people from their homes, raising fears of a new humanitarian disaster.
The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants.
When asked about the use of chemical weapons, Jeffrey said the United States remained vigilant on any potential such attack but said it did not have confirmation.
We do not at this point have any confirmation that chlorine, which was the substance that was suggested or alleged, has been used. … We haven’t finished our review.
France’s foreign ministry said it noted the allegations “with a degree of alarm”. It asked that the international community investigates them.
Jeffrey also said the U.S. was engaging with Russia to help de-escalate the conflict in Idlib. “Despite the recent tragic offensive there, Moscow has reconfirmed, at least on paper, their commitment to the ceasefire deal with the Turks,” he said.
LIVING UNDER BOMBARDMENT
A truce agreement since last year, brokered by Russia and Turkey, has shielded the region, home to an estimated 3 million people; including many who fled other parts of Syria as government forces advanced in recent years.However, Russia has voiced increasing frustration with what it calls violations of the agreement.
The Turkish army established its posts along the front line last year to monitor compliance with the agreement. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Tuesday they would remain, despite the Syrian army had carried out attacks near one of them.
Many displaced people, camping on the Turkish border, voiced anger and frustration. Mostly against Ankara for not doing more to help them.
“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves close to the frontier.
Turkey-backed rebels had sent reinforcements on Saturday to the front lines of the insurgent enclave. The jihadist Tahrir al-Sham group, the latest incarnation of the former al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front dominate the front.
War monitors said at least 100 air strikes hit rebel-held northwest Syria on Wednesday.
Rebels said they had recaptured the small town of Kafr Nabuda, which the government said it had taken early this month.
ASSAD CASUALTIES ON THE RISE
Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front, said:
There are a large number … killed from Assad’s forces … there are many bodies still on the ground in the town.
Mustafa said the army had used chlorine gas when shelling Kubayna. The village is located in the mountainous frontline area in the northwest of the rebel enclave. The attack caused choking symptoms among some fighters rescuers treated at a field hospital.
However, he said that because of the intense bombardment, they had not properly documented the cases.
Reuters contributed to this article.