MUNICH, GERMANY – Fighting around a rebel holdout in northwestern Syria is a “clear and present threat” to regional peace, the head of the International Rescue Committee aid group warned Thursday.
David Miliband said that Russian-backed President Bashar Assad’s offensive on Idlib was creating a “Gaza in Syria” with millions of people crammed into a tiny space beset with violence.
He said Idlib had become “the poster child for the age of impunity” and warned Europe must do more if it wants to avoid a fresh migrant crisis on its doorstep.
Assad’s forces have chipped away at the jihadi-ruled region since December, forcing almost 700,000 people to flee their homes toward the closed Turkish border.
“We’re seeing the creation of what some people have called a sort of Gaza in Syria, where a small but not insignificant terrorist grouping of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters are in control of an area where there are 3-plus million civilians,” Miliband told AFP.
Idlib, the last opposition bastion in Syria, is held by an array of rebels dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadi group, which is led by members of the country’s former al-Qaida franchise.
Tensions are mounting in the area between Russia and Turkey, which fears a fresh influx of refugees and has set up observation posts in Idlib under an agreement with Moscow.
“Two major states, Russia and Turkey, are contesting the fate of that area but also deciding the fate of those people,” Miliband said on the eve of the Munich Security Conference.
“It’s the poster child for the edge of impunity and it’s a very clear and present threat to regional peace and security.”
Miliband, a former British foreign minister, said that with a million people fleeing the Idlib region since last April, there was a risk of a “knock-on effect” into Europe — though likely not on the scale of the 2015-16 migrant crisis.