An alleged chemical attack by rebels threatens a truce in Syria

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FOR MUCH OF the summer it seemed that a Russian-backed assault on Idlib province, the Syrian rebels’ last redoubt, was imminent. International observers feared it would be an especially bloody battle, leading to a humanitarian crisis. But diplomacy prevailed in September when a ceasefire deal was reached between Russia, which backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels. A demilitarised buffer zone was created to separate rebel and government forces.

The deal survived, despite exchanges of bullets and artillery, which Russia and Turkey ignored. But on November 24th Russia accused rebels in the buffer zone of launching a chemical attack on the government-held city of Aleppo, injuring about 100 people. The next day Russia retaliated with air strikes on the rebels (who deny carrying out a chemical attack). The regime has stepped up its artillery attacks on Idlib. The truce is in danger of collapsing.

Russia and the regime say chlorine gas, a deadly toxin, was probably used in the attack on Aleppo. It knows of what it speaks—the regime itself has used chlorine in many attacks. But opposition activists think it is fabricating the news (another one of Mr Assad’s tactics) in order to justify an invasion of Idlib. Some say that an attack took place, but that the chemical used may have been tear gas. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an intergovernmental watchdog, will investigate.

Both Turkey and Russia still have an interest in avoiding an all-out battle for Idlib. Turkey wants to avoid driving more refugees (and, perhaps, extremists) across its border. Russia wants to stabilise the country and convince Western countries to start paying for reconstruction. Killing thousands of civilians in an assault on Idlib would undermine its claim to be seeking a political settlement to the war. But if Turkey fails to control Idlib’s rebels and jihadists, thousands of whom remain in the buffer zone, Russia may decide to back an assault.

The jihadists of Islamic State (IS), meanwhile, are tormenting American-backed fighters in eastern Syria. Since September the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by hundreds of air strikes, have tried to dislodge IS from the town of Hajin, its last redoubt on the border with Iraq. On November 23rd the jihadists, who number about 2,000, took advantage of the fog to counterattack. Over four days 92 members of the SDF were killed, its heaviest losses from a single skirmish since it was formed three years ago.

Both the rebels in Idlib and the jihadists in Hajin are outgunned. Eventually they will be defeated. The only question is how much more blood will be shed. 

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