The United States on Wednesday offered help to Turkey and threatened sanctions to press the Syrian regime and its ally Russia to halt a major new offensive.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Engagement and for the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, said Washington was "very, very worried" about the Syrian regime assault on Idlib which was backed by Russia and he repeated calls on Moscow to stop it.
"Certainly, we are moving forward on additional sanctions," Jeffrey told reporters. He did not name the targets but suggested that they would be in Syria.
Jeffrey said that U.S. President Donald Trump, under an executive order issued last year, has the authority to "go after people who are not supporting the political process and, particularly, not supporting the cease-fire."
"So we're looking at what we can do about that. And we're asking the Turks what help they need," he said.
Jeffrey also doubted Russia's justification that it had come under growing fire from the militants, who are not part of the cease-fire.
"We have seen only intermittent and not very strong or significant military actions on their part against the Russians," Jeffrey said.
"The Russians use this as an excuse, basically," he said, "to launch these massive attacks against the civilians."
Jeffrey said the immediate solution should be a "permanent cease-fire" before talks on "all issues" including the status of the militants.
The U.S. envoy also stepped up warnings to Russia over its Syria policy, saying Moscow was trying to challenge the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria by violating the terms of a de-confliction agreement and was also helping escalate the fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib.
"This is a dangerous conflict. It needs to be brought to an end. Russia needs to change its policies," Jeffrey said.
The United States, France and the United Kingdom called for a United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday to discuss the situation in Idlib.
President Trump softened his plans to pull out U.S. troops from Syria after backlash from Congress, and has kept around 600 troops, largely in northeastern Syria to continue the fight against the Daesh terror group.
However, in northwestern Syria, the United States has no troops on the ground and thus little leverage on Russia or the Syrian regime in asserting its position.
The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several cease-fire efforts, including one as recently as January.
On Wednesday, Syrian regime forces entered Saraqeb in Idlib, a war monitor and eyewitnesses said, in a renewed push by Bashar Assad to recapture the last opposition stronghold.
"We're seeing not just the Russians but Iranians and Hezbollah actively involved in supporting the Syrian offensive. We don't know whether the offensive is just to get to the M4-M5 road, or it may continue further," Jeffrey said, in reference to the strategic highways connecting Syria's Aleppo to Hama and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Jeffrey said Moscow could change its policies and meet the requirements of the international community without ousting Assad. "Those requirements are not unreasonable ... They require a change in that (Assad) government's behavior. That government would not survive a week without Russian assistance," he said.
Northeastern Syria is a complicated battleground with forces of the United States, Turkey and Russia as well as the Syrian regime and aligned Iranian militia operating, sometimes in close proximity.
Moscow has been filling the vacuum of U.S. withdrawal from the area, ramping up its military presence in Syria's northeast, and de-confliction agreements between the two sides ensure that they avoid any clashes.
But Jeffrey on Wednesday said there have been more incidents of Russia violating the terms of de-confliction in what he characterized as an attempt to challenge the U.S. presence there.
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