After rejecting Turkey plea, Russia and Iran back offensive in Idlib
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After rejecting Turkey plea, Russia and Iran back offensive in Idlib

Tehran: 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.

Smoke rising over buildings that were hit by airstrikes, in al-Sahan village, Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday.

Smoke rising over buildings that were hit by airstrikes, in al-Sahan village, Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday.Credit:AP

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.

A man holds a placard in Harim, in Idlib province, on Friday as part of a day of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his troops' imminent offensive against Idlib.

A man holds a placard in Harim, in Idlib province, on Friday as part of a day of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his troops' imminent offensive against Idlib.Credit:AP

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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.

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran's Hassan Rouhani and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan after they failed to agree on a diplomatic solution  in Tehran, Iran, on Friday.

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran's Hassan Rouhani and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan after they failed to agree on a diplomatic solution in Tehran, Iran, on Friday.Credit:AP

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."

Assad's biggest backer: Russian President Vladimir Putin in Iran on Friday.

Assad's biggest backer: Russian President Vladimir Putin in Iran on Friday.Credit:AP

Russia is Assad's top international backer; its support, including aircraft, special forces and mercenaries, enabled him to reverse the course of his country's seven-year civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

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Successive Russian-backed campaigns over the last two years have seen the government retake every major opposition bastion, offering fighters who refused to lay down their arms safe passage to Idlib.

But Russian warplanes have been carrying out intense airstrikes in the region, including in the past week.

For Russia and Iran retaking Idlib is crucial to complete a military victory in 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 Russia's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's postwar reconstruction. Russia also wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by the US and its long uncertainty over what it wants in the conflict. It insists it is the rebels who are planning a chemical attack.

"We think it's unacceptable when [someone] is trying to shield the terrorists under the pretext of protecting civilians as well as causing damage to Syrian government troops," Putin said. "As far as we can see, this is also the goal of the attempts to stage chemical weapons incidents by Syrian authorities. We have irrefutable evidence that militants are preparing such operations, such provocations."

The UN and Western countries have blamed Assad's forces for chemical weapons attacks in the civil war, something denied by Russia and Syria. The US, Britain and France have vowed to take action against any further chemical attacks by Assad's regime.

AP, Reuters, McClatchy