Staffan de Mistura. Picture: AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI
Staffan de Mistura. Picture: AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI

Geneva — The UN’s Syria peace envoy on Thursday offered to travel to Idlib to help ensure civilians can leave through a humanitarian corridor amid fears of an imminent government offensive to retake the last major region controlled by rebels.

"I am once again prepared ... personally and physically to get involved myself ... to ensure such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so that they can then return to their own places once this is over," Staffan de Mistura told reporters.

His comments in Geneva came amid fears the Syrian government, backed by long-time ally Russia, is mobilising for a military offensive to retake Idlib, the last province still held by the country’s beleaguered rebels.

Idlib, which borders Turkey, is home to nearly 3 million people, up to half of whom are rebels and civilians transferred en masse from other territory that has fallen to Syrian troops after intense assaults.

A major military operation in Idlib would pose a particular humanitarian nightmare since there is no opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.

"There is no other Idlib," de Mistura said, stressing the need to ensure that civilians can evacuate to nearby areas under government control, with guarantees that their rights will be respected once they get there.

"It would be a tragic irony, frankly, if at almost the end of ... a territorial war inside Syria, we would be witnessing the most horrific tragedy to the largest number of civilians," he said.

"It would be quite tragic at this stage, having seen how difficult the seven years [of Syria’s war] have been." More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of antigovernment protests.

Two years ago, de Mistura offered to go to eastern Aleppo and to personally escort Al Nusra fighters out of the besieged city, but Al Nusra declined his offer. He estimated there were around 10,000 Al Qaeda and Al Nusra fighters in Idlib.