Syria faces perpetual war unless Russia extends ceasefire, France warns

Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger in New York
Syrian rebel fighters walk in a newly dug trench in the village of al-Zakat in the northern countryside of Hama province on 17 September. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

France has warned Syria faces a future of perpetual war unless Russia agrees to turn the one-month ceasefire in Idlib into a wider UN-endorsed political agreement.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, issued the warning at the start of a week of summit meetings at the UN general assembly, where the US national security adviser, John Bolton, also raised the prospect of an endless, grueling conflict, vowing not to pulling US forces out of Syria before Iranian troops and their allies.

“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said in a striking departure from earlier public pledges by Donald Trump that the 2,000 US troops in Syria would leave “very soon” once the Islamic State was completely defeated there.

Bolton also warned Russia about the deployment of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles in Syria which he called “a major mistake” and a “significant escalation”. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said he would raise the matter when he met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in New York this week.

A widely expected major Syrian government offensive against the last major rebel enclave of Idlib was been put on hold following a deal between Russian and Turkish leaders last week that would create a demilitarised zone along the frontline, and the departure of extremist rebel fighters.

Le Drian said France was prepared to back a Turkish bid to win UN security council endorsement of the Idlib deal, but only if it includes wider political plans to end the eight-year civil war.

He said Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, “may have won the war, but he has not won the peace, and unless he wins the peace, there will be war”.

Under the Idlib deal struck between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian and Turkish troops would patrol the buffer zone and the rebels would surrender their heavy weapons.

It forestalled a government offensive which aid workers feared would be disastrous for Idlib’s 3 million population, half of which have been displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country.

The ceasefire is time-limited, however. Opposition heavy weapons have to be removed from the city by 10 October and groups with extremist jihadist links would have to leave by 15 October.

Le Drian said the deal, agreed by Putin and Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last week had many flaws including the absence of an explicit Syrian government endorsement.

The French minister said it “does not bring the war to an end, and nothing assures us that the Syrian government will play along”.

Speaking at a briefing at the start of the assembly, Le Drian said: “It is the responsibility of the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, but also those that support him to to seek a political solution. Otherwise we risk seeing a form of perpetual war.”

US officials believe that Russia agreed to halt the offensive on Idlib because Moscow believes the Assad regime in Damascus could not quickly defeat the rebel holdout without chemical weapons and realised that major use of chemical arms would invite US and allied intervention.

This realisation that Idlib would not fall as easily as earlier rebel enclaves, has made Moscow less optimistic about a military victory and opened up the possibility of diplomatic progress, the Trump administration believes.

But the US and France argue the Russian diplomatic roadmap – based on Assad staying in Damascus, internationally funded reconstruction and the return of refugees – will not work. Their position is that reconstruction and refugee return could only follow a radical change in the Syrian government.

The so-called small group on Syria, made up of mainly western foreign ministers, is due to meet at this week’s general assembly in New York.

Le Drian said France had very clear preconditions before it could support UN security council validation he said France needed questions answered on how the agreement fits with the peace process, including the establishment of a constitutional committee, the return of refugees, the delivery of humanitarian aid across border and, elections held in a neutral atmosphere.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, said any battle for Idlib would be far bloodier than previous struggles over rebel enclaves in Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, as this time the rebels would have nowhere else to go.

Lowcock told the Guardian: “A massive military onslaught on Idlib would create the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.”

Separately, in a joint French-UK statement issued after the meeting, the two countries “acknowledged the ruling of the ICC pre-trial chamber that the court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh as well as over the alleged crime against humanity.”