The head of the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned that a potential government offensive in the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria risks causing renewed displacement and discourage others Syrians from returning home.
The comments by Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, on Friday came as protesters in Idlib rallied against the threat of military action by Syrian forces and its Russian ally to capture the strategic northwest province bordering Turkey.
Idlib is home to an estimated three million people, half of whom are internally displaced after being transferred en masse to the province from other areas that fell to pro-government forces.
Speaking to reporters in Beirut, Grandi said an offensive was going to make the situation “very difficult” and appealed to the Syrian government to find a way forward that would “spare civilian lives”.
“You risk also sending a message to refugees that the situation is not secured,” Grandi said. “Refugees will be watching very closely what is happening in Idlib in the next few months.”
Idlib is largely controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, which is dominated by a rebel faction that was previously known as al-Nusra Front until it cut its ties to al-Qaeda.
Turkey has been trying to avoid a large-scale assault on Idlib, primarily by utilising pledges made via the Astana diplomatic track to maintain a lasting ceasefire.
On Friday, Turkey – which has 12 military observation posts inside Idlib aimed at monitoring a de-escalation zone and backs other rebel groups in the province – officially designated HTS as a “terrorist organisation”.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters on Friday that Ankara “is trying to prevent an attack on Syria’s Idlib, which could be a disaster”.
Cavusoglu echoed Grandi in saying that a new offensive could result in a fresh wave of refugees.
“It is important for all of us to neutralise these radical groups,” he said. “But we have to distinguish the civilians from the terrorist groups.”
Intense negotiations have been under way for weeks between Russia and Turkey, which hosts some three million Syrians and has already stated that it will not open its borders to accept further refugees in the event an assault takes place.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian government had every right to chase fighters out of Idlib.
Syrian government forces “had the full right to protect its sovereignty and to drive out, liquidate the terrorist threat on its territory”, Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
He also said that negotiations are under way to establish a humanitarian corridor for civilians to be able to leave Idlib. The UN on Thursday proposed establishing the corridor, which would channel civilians to government-held areas.
Speaking from Beirut, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr said that the UN has reiterated its long-standing position that due to Syria’s instability, it is still premature to organise large-scale refugee returns.
“These returns cannot be, in the words of the head of the UNHCR, sustainable,” she said.
Many refugees and internally displaced persons remain fearful of what awaits them in government-held areas, added Khodr.
“A lot of them are afraid of retribution,” she explained. “They fear that there are no safety guarantees in place to make sure the Syrian government does not take any measures against them simply for accusing them of supporting the opposition,” she said.