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Idlib assault looms as Syria summit begins

The village of Zardana in Idlib province, Syria, after it was hit by air strikes in June. Picture by Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP

THE presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey are meeting to discuss the future of Syria as a bloody military operation looms in the last rebel-held area of the war-ravaged nation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire and an end to air strikes in the north-western province of Idlib, something that was not immediately accepted by Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Mr Putin warned that militants in Idlib planned "provocations", possibly including chemical weapons. The Syrian government has been repeatedly accused of using such weapons in the long conflict.

Mr Putin added that it is "unacceptable" to use civilians as a pretext to shield "terrorists" in Idlib.

Mr Rouhani demanded an immediate withdrawal of American forces in the country. The US has 2,000 troops in Syria.

"The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end," Mr Rouhani said, adding that terrorism must "be uprooted in Syria, particularly in Idlib".

Each of the three countries has its own interests in the years-long war in Syria.

Iran wants to keep its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighbouring Israel and Lebanon.

Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilising areas it now holds in Syria.

Russia wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America's long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict.

North-western Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about three million people – nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. There are an estimated 10,000 hardcore fighters, including al Qaida-linked militants.

For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's civil war after government troops recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.

A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalising, and could hurt Moscow's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's post-war reconstruction.

For Turkey, the stakes could not be higher. Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib.

A government assault creates a nightmare scenario of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, including militants, fleeing towards its border and destabilising towns and cities in northern Syria.

Early on Friday, a series of air strikes struck villages in south-west Idlib, targeting insurgent posts and killing one fighter, said Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He said suspected Russian planes carried out the attack.

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