As military action by Syrian regime forces appeared imminent in the last big opposition and rebel enclave of Idlib, Turkey, the UN and parties negotiating a settlement for the seven-year-war scrambled to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
As a Syrian regime offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib seemed imminent, all parties involved in trying to end the seven-year-war ramped up efforts on Wednesday and Thursday to prevent a military escalation in an area where more than 3 million Syrians reside.
The Syrian regime's foreign minister confirmed the Bashar al Assad regime will "go all the way" in the last opposition and rebel-held enclave, with al Nusra Front militants as the main targets.
Earlier Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described militants in the opposition and rebel-held Syrian enclave of Idlib as a “festering abscess” that needed to be liquidated, and the Kremlin on Thursday said not tackling the hotbed of "terrorists" was not a good option.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the comments to reporters on a conference call while answering a question about planned Russian naval drills in the Mediterranean, an exercise he said the difficult situation in Syria justified.
The presence of the Russian navy in the Mediterranean Sea and reports of the regime poised for a "phased offensive" in Idlib raised concerns about the safety of Syrians already displaced by war and a renewed displacement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was collaborating with Russia and Iran "to prevent an Aleppo-like disaster" in Idlib.
As war talk snowballed on Thursday, the UN envoy for Syria suggested evacuations of civilians to government areas — a move that would send many back into parts of Syria they once fled during the war — after urging for more talks. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's comments prompted criticism from some who said evacuations were not a solution.
The UN has warned of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster if war breaks out in Idlib.
The US Department of State said the best way to protect the civilians in Idlib was for Russia to compel the Assad regime to avoid a military offensive.
TRT World's Alaatin Kilic has more.
Fears abound of chemical weapons
"We need to reduce the risk of unexpected escalation, and definitely look with great concern about any potential use of chemical weapons or any type of weaponised chlorine," Mistura said.
He told reporters that there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 "terrorists", who needed to be dealt with.
However, Mistura said, it would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could turn prove to be a "perfect storm".
Idlib, the final opposition enclave
The Syrian regime forces were preparing for a phased offensive in Idlib and surrounding areas, a source close to Damascus told Reuters on Wednesday.
The offensive would initially target southern and western parts of the opposition and rebel-held territory, but not yet Idlib city, said the source, in the regional alliance backing Assad.
"The final touches for the first stage will be completed in the coming hours," the source added, without saying when it would start.
There were still negotiations over the offensive going on between Russia and Turkey, as well as with Iran which also supports Assad regime in the war, the source said.
Turkey, which borders Idlib and has a military presence there, has warned against such an attack.
At the US State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert also confirmed there were indications that Syrian forces were preparing an offensive on Idlib.
She said Washington's new representative for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, raised concerns about the possible offensive in a recent meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
"We are concerned not just about a potential chemical weapons attack, but we are concerned about any kind of escalation of violence in Idlib that would put civilians and civilian infrastructure in Idlib at risk," she added.
Assad has turned towards Idlib, where opposition groups, rebel factions dominate amid the presence of militants. Recent Russian-backed victories drove the opposition groups from a mosaic of other areas in Syria.
They now hold only the territory in and around Idlib, as well as an adjacent area in which opposition authorities are backed by Turkey, and a patch of desert around a US military camp in the south.
TRT World's Arabella Munro reports.
Turkey working with Russia, Iran to prevent disaster
Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu spoke on the phone, to discuss the situation in Syria and the region. "Turkey is striving to ensure security, prevent attacks, giving aid to nearly four million people in Syria’s Idlib," Akar said.
On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey is collaborating with Russia and Iran “to prevent an Aleppo-like disaster” in Idlib.
“We are a nation that wins on the field not at the table. That is why at every opportunity we say that we should be present on the field, be strong in the field, and succeed at the field,” Erdogan said, speaking at a Victory Day reception in capital Ankara.
“This is how we destroyed the terror corridor along our borders with Syria.”
The human cost
A major offensive in the Idlib area, where displaced people already make up half the population, risks forcing another 700,000 Syrians from their homes, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Ankara also fears a major offensive could unleash a new flood of refugees across the Turkish border, which the UN also warned of.
It also risks raising tensions with Turkey, whose army established a ring of observation posts around the rebel territory last year under a "de-escalation" deal with Russia and Iran.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this month he hoped Ankara and Moscow could find a solution for Idlib, warning that a bombing campaign there would be a massacre.
Lavrov had told reporters that there was a political understanding between Turkey and Russia on the need to distinguish between the Syrian opposition and people he described as terrorists in Idlib province while not ruling out military action.
The foreign minister was speaking to the press after a meeting with his Saudi counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir in Moscow.
The first phase of the offensive will include the town of Jisr al Shughour and the al Ghab plain on the western side of Idlib, and the towns of al Latamenah, Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat al Numan in its south, the Reuters source, said.
Taking those areas would bring Assad's regime close to regaining control over highways running from Aleppo to Hama and Latakia, two of Syria's most important pre-war roads.
The regime forces and its allies would also reinforce the western edge of Aleppo city in anticipation of a rebel assault there aimed at blunting the offensive, the source said.
In recent weeks, the regime forces have dropped leaflets over Idlib province urging people to surrender, opened a route for civilians to cross into regime territory and, according to a war monitor, sent more reinforcements to the front. It has stepped up air strikes and shelling near the front lines, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.
Idlib and surrounding areas outside regime control are home to more than three million people, of whom 1.8 million are displaced. Many of the displaced people fled earlier offensives to escape the fighting or avoid coming back under Assad's rule — including those bussed to Idlib under "evacuation" deals when rebels surrendered other enclaves.
Evacuations from eastern Ghouta, Deraa and other rebel territories captured by the regime have contributed to the displacement of more than half a million people to or within Idlib in the past six months, the UN said.