BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army urged people in rebel-held Idlib province to agree to a return of state rule and told them the war was nearing its end in leaflets dropped over the northwestern region on Thursday.
Idlib, at the Turkish border, is one of the last major rebel strongholds in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad, who has defeated rebels across much of Syria with Russian and Iranian help, has indicated it could be his next target.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said additional government forces were arriving for a possible attack in an area to the southwest of Idlib city that overlaps with Latakia and Hama provinces.
Syrians have fled to Idlib province from other parts of the country as the government has advanced, and the United Nations has warned that an offensive there could force 2.5 million people towards the Turkish border in the event of an offensive.
NATO member Turkey has warned against any offensive in Idlib, and is pressing Russia to make sure this doesn’t happen. Turkey has established 12 military observation posts in the northwest under an agreement with Russia and Iran.
U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Thursday that Russia, Turkey and Iran had said they would do their utmost to avoid a battle in Idlib. But he added that the U.N. was making preparations and that he would ask Turkey to keep its borders open for fleeing civilians.
“Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will release you from the rule of militants and terrorists, and will preserve your and your families’ lives,” declared the leaflets that were dropped in rural areas near Idlib city.
“We call upon you to join local reconciliation (agreements) as many others in Syria have done,” said the leaflet in the name of the army command, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.
Such agreements, concluded at the local level, have been a tool for helping the Syrian government to reestablish control over numerous areas and have often been agreed when rebel fighters are on the brink of military defeat.
The government says the agreements grant an amnesty to rebels who are willing to live under state rule again, unless private law suits have been brought against them. The terms also include that they give up weapons.
But many rebels, civilian dissidents and others have instead opted to take safe passage to the opposition-held northwest, an arc of territory at the Turkish border that stretches from Idlib to the city of Jarablus on the Euphrates River.
Idlib is controlled by an array of insurgent groups, but jihadists are widely assessed to be the dominant force there.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Richard Balmforth