Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday warned against a “scorched earth” policy in Idlib province, as he hosted three-way talks with Russia and Turkey to shape the future of Syria’s last major rebel bastion.
Rouhani was speaking as he met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for highly-anticipated talks in Tehran.
The Turkish leader also urged the Syrian regime and its allies to avoid a bloodbath, but Putin insisted Damascus as “the legitimate Syrian government has a right and must eventually take under control all its national territory”.
The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of talks on Syria’s civil war launched after Russia’s game-changing 2015 military intervention that has eclipsed Western-backed Geneva negotiations led by the United Nations.
“Fighting terrorism in Idlib is an unavoidable part of the mission of restoring peace and stability to Syria,” Rouhani told the summit in Tehran.
“But this battle must not cause civilians to suffer or lead to a scorched earth policy,” he added, amid UN warnings of a humanitarian disaster if an offensive goes ahead.
Iranian and Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shored up the Damascus regime, allowing it to regain the upper hand in the seven-year civil war which has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2011.
Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control. It is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.
On Friday morning, Russian air raids pounded rebel positions in the southwest of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Among them were positions of the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, as well as of the hardline Ahrar al-Sham group, the Britain-based monitor said.
Hundreds of civilians have already begun to flee Idlib ahead of what could be the last — and bloodiest — major battle of the devastating conflict.
Turkey, which has long backed Syrian rebels, fears the assault could prompt a flood of desperate Syrians towards its territory.
“We never want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath,” Erdogan told his Iranian and Russian counterparts on Friday.
“Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy,” he said, calling for a ceasefire in the province.
“If we can ensure a ceasefire here, this will be one of the most important steps of the summit,” Erdogan said.
“Idlib is of vital importance not only for Syria’s future but also for our national security, as well as peace and stability in the region.”
But regime backers Russia and Iran have sworn to wipe out “terrorists” and Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.
Eight leading aid agencies warned Friday that “once again, it will be the most vulnerable who will pay the heaviest price”. They appealed to world leaders to “urgently work together to avoid this horrific scenario”.
The Tehran talks could determine the scale and the timeline of the Idlib offensive, which the UN has warned may displace some 800,000 people.
Later Friday, the UN Security Council was also due to meet, at Washington’s request, to discuss Idlib.
Russia wants Turkey, which borders the province, to use its influence to rein in the dominant group HTS, led by the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, as well as rival rebels.
Turkey has limited sway over the jihadists who control an estimated 60 percent of the province, but it backs other rebel groups and has 12 military “observation points” across the area.
Idlib’s population has swelled as the regime chalked up a series of victories across the country, reaching evacuation deals that saw tens of thousands of people bussed there.
‘Liquidation of terrorists’
Russia has said the Syrian army is preparing to solve the problem of “terrorism” in the rebel stronghold.
“A total and definitive liquidation of the terrorists across all of Syria’s territory is necessary,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
She stressed however that Moscow “is doing everything in its power to ensure that human losses and harm to Idlib’s civilian population is limited as much as possible”.
Al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper close to the government, reported Monday the military operation could “immediately follow the summit”.