Iran and Russia have backed a military campaign to retake Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria, despite Turkey pleading for a ceasefire to avoid what many say would be a bloody humanitarian disaster.
On Friday, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, declared his government was determined to move on Idlib to wipe out what he called factions associated with terrorist groups.
At the same time, a trilateral summit in Tehran involving Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, failed to agree on a diplomatic solution sought by Erdogan who said his country already sheltered more than 3 million Syrian refugees and could take no more should people flee a new offensive.
Meanwhile, the US was preparing to retaliate if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad proceeds with a chemical weapons attack on the province, as feared.
A top US envoy said there was “lots of evidence” that chemical weapons were being prepared by Syrian government forces in Idlib.
The province is home to some 3 million people, nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria.
Putin reportedly rejected a ceasefire, claiming worry for the fate of civilians was being used as a “pretext” to ease pressure on what he called terrorists. He called for the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria”. Rouhani also spoke of “cleansing the Idlib region of terrorists,” while also noting the need of protecting civilians.
Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Assad, fears a military offensive will touch off a flood of refugees and destabilise other areas. Ankara also has hundreds of troops manning 12 observation posts in Idlib.
“Idlib isn’t just important for Syria’s future; it is of importance for our national security and for the future of the region,” Erdogan said. “Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe.
Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience. We don’t want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath.”