GENEVA – Renewed fighting in northwest Syria after a brief cease-fire has triggered “total panic,” a top U.N. official said Thursday, warning that a possible government offensive in the area was “like playing with fire.
The jihadi-run bastion of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold in Syria, is currently home to about 3 million people.
The United Nations has raised specific alarm about the risks of a massive government offensive in the area because Idlib has for several years served as a reception zone for those escaping government advances elsewhere in the country.
“These people don’t know where to go,” the U.N.’s humanitarian chief for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said, stressing that there is no other opposition stronghold where people can flee if Idlib confronts a full assault by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
“A total panic has resumed again,” added Moumtzis.
He spoke after a meeting in Geneva that included envoys from Syrian ally Russia, which has reportedly hit southern Idlib with airstrikes this week.
“It is like playing with fire at the moment and we worry about it coming out of control,” Moumtzis said.
The U.N. has said that an estimated 400,000 people have been displaced within Idlib over the last 100 days.
Contingencies are in place for up to 900,000 displacements but there were no plans for managing an offensive that affected Idlib’s entire population, Moumtzis said.
“What is the … plan for the 3 million people there?” he said. “That is a question we haven’t got an answer for.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadi group led by Syria’s former al-Qaida affiliate, has controlled most of Idlib province since January.
A truce that started last Friday was supposed to protect civilians in the region, halting three months of deadly regime and Russian bombardment.
But HTS on Saturday refused to comply with a key condition to that truce, vowing it would never withdraw from a planned buffer zone around the area.
On Monday, the government declared the cease-fire over, accusing its opponents of attacking civilian areas and bombarding a Russian air base.