Three million civilians held their breath on Friday in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held stronghold, hoping talks in Tehran between Russia, Iran and Turkey could deter the Assad regime from launching a military assault on the city.
The talks ended with no deal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire that was opposed by both Russia and Iran, the staunch allies of Damascus.
With no relief in sight, people in Idlib are figuring out ways to survive. From incendiary weapons like bunker busters and barrel bombs, more than 3 million men, women and children caught in the besieged city are expecting the worst form of attacks from Russia backed Assad regime.
“Opposition groups are preparing themselves ‘digging trenches and erecting roadblocks’ for any prospect and sudden attacks, but we don’t have enough masks for any possible chemical attacks,” Ahmad Al Khaled, a civilian from northwestern city of Saraqeb in Idlib, tells TRT World on Friday.
“We have shelters we can hide in during the aerial attacks but Idlib now is overpopulated city and there are no places [to hide] for this huge number of people.”
Idlib shares 130 kilometres (82 miles) borderline with Turkey and is bordered by Syrian province of Aleppo to the east; Aleppo's Afrin district to the northeast; Hama province to the south and Latakia province to the northwest.
The province has been under a heavy air bombardment since October 2015 as Russia unabashedly escalated aerial assaults and increased its role in the civil war.
The Assad regime disclosed its plans to attack Idlib quite recently, while Russia had been bombing the territory from early September.
The city is currently divided between the opposition and Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an armed anti-regime group formerly known as the Nusra Front.
In May, 14 opposition groups fighting against the Assad regime united under the banner of "National Liberation Front."
Russia and regime continue to bomb
“An offensive will happen sooner or later. It's just difficult to say how soon,” Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria and Bahrain, tells TRT World.
“Personally, I would guess that the Russians would continue what they have already started.”
Putin ruled out a ceasefire during the Tehran talks saying the Nusra Front - an Al Qaeda linked armed group - and Daesh militants located there were not part of peace talks.
"Syria should regain control of all its territory," Putin said.
Referring to President Erdogan's appeal to give ceasefire a chance, Putin said he agreed with the Turkish president but at the same time he "can't talk for terrorists from Jabhat al Nusra or Daesh that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.
"The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a "scorched-earth" policy," Rouhani said.
The previous regime assaults on eastern Ghouta, Deraa and some other places forced thousands to flee Idlib.
But this time, surrounded by regime-held areas and Turkish borders, civilians have no place to be evacuated.
Earlier on Friday, as the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met to discuss the fate of the enclave, Russian and regime airstrikes hit parts of Idlib province, a war monitor said.
The Britain-based Observatory said strikes on Friday targeted Ahrar al Sham group near the town of al Habeet resulting death of at least five people.
Ahrar al Sham is part of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front alliance.
"No military solution"
In May 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran has reached an agreement aimed at reducing the violence in mainly opposition-held areas of the country. However, the plan couldn’t be implemented in Idlib as Russian and regime airstrikes continued.
As per the agreement, Turkey has set up 12 observation points in Idlib province to follow the situation around the city.
“We feel comfortable to see the Turkey’s observation points in the province. All people think that Turkey is the shield which will protect them from Russia and the regime, the shield that will prevent them from committing massacres and conducting air strikes against civilians,” Khaled said.
The three leaders agreed to eliminate Daesh, the Nusra Front and other terrorists groups on Friday.
"There could be no military solution to the Syrian conflict and it can only end through a negotiated political process,” they said in a joint statement.
The next tripartite meeting will be held in Russia, upon the invitation of President Putin.
While the three leaders were talking about the future of the region in Tehran, hundreds of locals in Idlib and some neighbouring cities poured onto streets after Friday prayers to protest against the regime forces' possible attacks.
Some protestors raised Turkish flags during the demonstrations.
“We protested today, because we wanted to tell the world that we want freedom, justice and equality,” Khaled told TRT World.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Turks took to streets on Friday in solidarity with the opposition groups and civilians in Idlib.
Syrians living in Istanbul gathered after the Friday prayer outside the historic Fatih Mosque on the city's European side to protest the looming attacks on Idlib.