World News

U.N. adviser Egeland says 'tremendous battles' still loom in Syria

(Corrects final paragraph of this March 14 story, after correction from source, to say “humanitarian NGOs” instead of “armed groups”.)

FILE PHOTO: United Nations Syria envoy's Special Adviser Jan Egeland attends a briefing after the meeting of the humanitarian task force on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland February 1, 2018 REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria could see “tremendous battles” for two remaining rebel enclaves even once a government onslaught on the last insurgent pocket near Damascus is over, a senior U.N. adviser said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.

International attention has focused on the battle for besieged eastern Ghouta outside the capital and for Afrin in the far north where Turkey sent in forces to combat Kurdish militia it sees as a threat to its security.

But they are not the last flashpoints as Syria’s war enters its eighth year, three years after the tide began turning in the government’s favor, said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a senior U.N. adviser on Syria.

“Our fear is that after eastern Ghouta we may see tremendous battles now in and around Idlib (in the far northwest)and, in the south, Deraa,” he said.

Those would be just the latest in a string of increasingly bitter and cruel “end battles” following fighting for Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, Egeland said.

He said that in each battle, civilians were caught between warring sides who justified their ruthlessness by claiming to be fighting terrorism or dictatorship.

“It’s really not too late to have talks around Idlib, to have talks around Deraa, and to have talks around Afrin,” he said. “Idlib would be a tremendous concern because Idlib is in many ways a gigantic refugee camp.”

To stem one of the worst effects of the fighting - air strikes on medical facilities - Egeland said a new notification system for the coordinates of more than a dozen hospitals had gone into effect in the last few days.

“We have delivered coordinates on hospitals both in eastern Ghouta and in Idlib to the United States and to Russia, and Russia will not only guarantee that they will not attack, we’re asking them also to make sure that Syrian armed forces, the air force, is not targeting the hospitals,” Egeland said.

Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main military ally in the conflict.

“I was in touch with the Russians and the Americans yesterday on this,” Egeland said. “The humanitarian NGOs have given it to the U.N., and the U.N. has transmitted this to Russia and the U.S., and they will then transmit it to their allies.”

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Heinrich