INTERNATIONAL

Last-ditch talks to avert battle for Syria’s Idlib

Gearing up?Turkish forces on a highway near Saraqib town in Idlib province on Wednesday.AFP

Gearing up?Turkish forces on a highway near Saraqib town in Idlib province on Wednesday.AFP  

Key brokers on Thursday held last-ditch talks on the fate of Syria’s only remaining rebel-held province, hoping to stave off a government offensive which the UN has warned could spark catastrophe.

Government forces have been massing around Idlib for days, and looked poised to launch what could be the last major battle of the civil war.

After retaking a succession of rebel bastions around the country this year, the government has set its sights on Idlib.

The province’s most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, and the neighbouring Turkey is trying to use its influence to avert a major offensive against it. “The negotiations between Turkey and the HTS are still under way,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights.

Russia, whose 2015 military intervention helped the government reclaim much of the ground it had lost, wants the jihadist outfit to disband, he said.

“This is the condition set by Moscow to avert a broad offensive... Its launch hinges on the failure or success of these talks with the HTS.”

In comments published on its propaganda agency Ibaa, the HTS appeared to leave the door open to a negotiated settlement. “We are striving to find an effective solution in the liberated Syrian north that would protect our people from a possible offensive by the criminal regime and its allies.”

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