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German FM To Warn Lavrov Of Possible 'Humanitarian Catastrophe' In Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Moscow in May
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in Moscow in May

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says he will warn Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later on September 14 that a major military offensive on the last Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib Province risks triggering a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

"We all know what's at stake," Maas said in an interview with the German news agency dpa ahead of his scheduled meeting with Lavrov in Berlin. "This is about preventing the worst, namely a new humanitarian catastrophe."

Syria's government has announced plans for a major offensive to drive the remaining rebels out of Idlib.

Russia and Iran have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crucial support throughout the country’s seven-year civil war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

The United Nations expects up to 900,000 people to flee if Assad launches a large-scale offensive on Syria’s last rebel-held region, home to some 3 million people.

"Russia plays a key role and we have expectations of them," Maas said. "We're going to discuss this very openly with one another."

The visit comes as tensions remain high between the West and Russia, with Moscow’s support for Assad, its seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and other issues proving divisive.

But Lavrov said that he sees a potential for improved ties with Germany.

“I would prefer not to characterize the relations between Russia and Germany as tense,” he said in an interview with dpa ahead of his departure to Berlin.

“There are political divergences that bring some complicating moments into the structure of bilateral relations.

“But the common historical, cultural, and social convergences, the economy and, if you like, human wisdom, have established a foundation that enables the people of our countries to believe in a nice, predictable future -- one that can be made together.”

He said that Western governments “have, over the past quarter-century, been attempting to confine Russia.”

Lavrov also said Moscow remains ready to improve relations with the United States but he blamed what he called “Russophobia” in Washington for putting the brakes on any progress.

"We are taking seriously statements by [U.S. President Donald] Trump on [his] willingness to set up normal dialogue between our countries," Lavrov added.

Trump has pushed for improved ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin despite criticism from Democrats and some Republicans that he has not pressed Moscow enough on alleged meddling in U.S. elections and other issues.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa