The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has warned of a "perfect storm" in north-west Syria if the government goes ahead with its threatened offensive against rebels and called for humanitarian corridors to be set up to allow civilians to be evacuated temporarily. Almost three million people live in Idlib where, according a UN estimate, there are around 10,000 al-Nusra and al-Qaeda jihadist fighters. The UN is desperate to avoid the deaths of civilians seen recently in other parts of Syria like Aleppo, Raqqa or the Eastern Ghouta, and its diplomats are pleading with those fighting to show restraint.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "terrorists" must be wiped out in Idlib, accusing them of using civilians as human shields. Both he and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, accused rebels of preparing to stage a chemical attack in Idlib in order to blame pro-government forces and draw new US military retaliation. Mr de Mistura said both the government and the rebels had the ability to make chlorine-based chemical weapons.
Mr de Mistura said, "There is a perfect storm based on warnings, counter-warnings which is gathering around and due to the dilemma, which is a true dilemma on how to defeat terrorists in Idlib and at the same time avoid affecting a huge number of civilians," he said. "So, while we are aware that efforts and discussions are taking place to avoid the worst-case scenario, one cannot ignore that miscalculations may indeed occur leading to unforeseen escalation and we are all very much concerned."
Mr de Mistura offered to go to Idlib personally to set up a humanitarian corridor which, he acknowledged, would mean evacuating people into government-controlled territory. "That area most likely is under government control, so that requires a constructive, effective government support and a UN presence," he said.