(CNSNews.com) – A U.N. expert panel on Syria is urging anti-Assad rebels – which include jihadist groups with ties to al-Qaeda – to withdraw from populated areas in Idlib, to avoid civilian carnage as an Assad regime offensive gets underway.

“Most of those terrorist groups and other armed groups, they are in the cities,” noted Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “Perhaps one wonderful scenario is – leave the cities.”

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Pinheiro highlighted the plight of 2.9 million civilians, including one million children, living in Idlib, along with tens of thousands of rebels and terrorists.


Of the 2.9 million civilians, around 1.4 million – including fighters who surrendered, and their families – were transferred to Idlib from Aleppo and other parts of Syria under agreements negotiated by Russia as the regime clawed back formerly rebel-held areas.

Pinheiro, a Brazilian lawyer, urged parties to the conflict to take steps to safeguard the civilians, warning that the scale of the potential catastrophe would dwarf those in other parts of Syria during the conflict.

“All the other disasters would be minor events compared to what can happen in Idlib.”

“Of course we don’t have anything against fighting against terrorists, but something has to be done to protect the rights of the three million people.”

Pinheiro said it was important to remember that many of the civilians did not enjoy freedom of movement but were living under the control of terrorist groups – not by “democratic freedom fighters.”

“We don’t deny the duty and the right of the states to fight terrorist organizations, but we don’t think that the civilian population has to pay the price of this war against terrorism.”

Another member of the three-person panel, Hanny Megally, agreed with the need to safeguard civilians.

“We have no problem with states going after terrorists, armed groups etc., if they’ve committed crimes or are about to commit crimes, but not at the cost of innocent civilians,” he said.

“When you have armed groups sitting within a populated area, any attack on those armed groups will of course then result in what might be called collateral damage.”

Pointing to the large number of civilians in Idlib, Megally said many would be “sacrificed – whether killed or having to move out. The question is, shouldn’t the armed groups move out, and spare the civilian population?”

‘The largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11’

Idlib, which borders Turkey, is the last remaining significant stronghold of the anti-regime rebellion which Assad and his allies are determined to crush.

It is also the location of a major concentration of terrorists with current or former ties to al-Qaeda – in part the result of those negotiated transfers from other parts of the country.

Chief among these is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) – formerly known as Al-Nusra Front – which claims to have broken with al-Qaeda to focus on Syrian issues solely, and to collaborate more closely with other anti-Assad factions.

(The U.S. government did not buy the rebranding exercise, and continues to regard HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate.

State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said in May that the U.S. “is not fooled by this al-Qaeda affiliate’s attempt to rebrand itself. Whatever name Nusra chooses, we will continue to deny it the resources it seeks to further its violent cause.”)

Unhappy with HTS’s claimed dissociation from al-Qaeda, some fighters broke away and formed new al-Qaeda affiliated groups, such as Tanzim Hurras ad-Din (“Guardians of Religion Organization”).

In July last year, the U.S. special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, told an event at the Middle East Institute that Idlib had become a “huge problem,” and described it as “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”

“The approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons, and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach,” he said. “And al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it.”

Non-jihadist rebels in Idlib are mostly members of the so-called National Front for Liberation (NLF), established last May to bring together various factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and supported by Turkey.

With Turkey’s reported encouragement, the armed Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham merged into the NLF in recent weeks.

During the long and convoluted conflict, Ahrar al-Sham has collaborated both with the Western-backed FSA and with the Al-Nusra Front at various times, and has also fought against ISIS.

A recent U.N. Security Council ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions committee report, citing information from “member states,” attributed some of the recent alignments and realignments of terrorist factions in Idlib to al-Qaeda leaders based in Iran.

“Al-Qaeda leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with [al-Qaeda chief] Ayman al-Zawahiri and projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously,” the report states.

“They have influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic, countering the authority of [HTS leader] Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani and causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various al-Qaeda-aligned groups in Idlib.”

The report named the al-Qaeda leaders in Iran as Sayf Al-Adl and Abu Muhammad Al-Masri. The two terrorists are wanted by the U.S. in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, and just last month the State Department doubled the reward offered for information on them to $10 million each.

The Security Council report’s claims of such senior and influential al-Qaeda leaders being based in Iran call into question the Iranian regime’s claims to be focused solely in its Syria intervention with fighting terrorists.