Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Russia and Iran that an attack by Syrian government forces and their allies on Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country, would result in a "massacre."
Erdogan spoke on September 7 at a summit in Tehran with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said Syria's government "has the right" to recapture the entire country and opposed Erdogan's call for a cease-fire in Idlib.
The three leaders met to discuss the situation in the northwestern province amid concerns that an expected government offensive there would cause severe bloodshed, major civilian casualties, and a humanitarian catastrophe.
"Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, a massacre, and a very big humanitarian tragedy," said Erdogan. "We never want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath."
"If we can announce a cease-fire today here, I believe this will be one of the most important steps of this summit," he said. "This will bring comfort to civilians. I think making such an announcement will be a victory for this summit."
Rohani said that the fight in Syria should continue until all extremists are "uprooted," especially in Idlib, but that the battle there should not harm civilians.
Putin said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government "has the right to and must ultimately take control of all its national territory."
He voiced opposition to Erdogan's call for a cease-fire, saying that the rebels were not at the talks and a decision on a truce could not be made for them.
Hours before the presidents met, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that air strikes hit parts of Idlib province on September 7.
Meanwhile, Idlib residents held mass rallies to protest against Assad and the anticipated government offensive.
"Leave, Bashar!" hundreds of protesters chanted in Saraqeb, a town in eastern Idlib. "We will defend our revolution."
Putin -- travelling with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov -- met with Erdogan before the trilateral talks.
There are tens of thousands of rebels in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. An estimated 10,000 Al-Qaeda-linked fighters are among those rebels, and Idlib is also home to about 3 million civilians — nearly half of them displaced from other parts of Syria.
Russia and Iran are both allies of the Syrian government, which has set its sights on retaking Idlib in what it sees as the next critical step to clinching a military victory in the seven-year civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.
For the Syrian government and Russia, the province is also strategically important because it borders Latakia province, Assad's main stronghold and the site of Russia's biggest air base in the country as well as its naval facility.
Turkey backs many of the rebel groups in the province but recently moved toward its negotiating partners in declaring that the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, is a "terrorist organization" that should be eliminated.
Russian officials have said "terrorist" groups should be "liquidated," but the Russian military has also said it is seeking to separate out extremist fighters from other rebel groups supported by Turkey.
As Putin and Erdogan were arriving in Tehran, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes were targeting positions belonging to rebel groups in the northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces.
It said strikes on September 7 destroyed a building near the town of al-Habeet used by the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, which is separate from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, resulting in a number of casualties.
Assad's government has been massing thousands of troops in preparation for an assault. Russia, which has provided air support to the Syrian army since 2015, has made a big show of force by moving 10 warships and two submarines off the coast of Syria.
A spokesman for the National Front for Liberation, a Turkey-backed rebel alliance, said the group's fighters are prepared for battle but are looking to Turkey for efforts to prevent the attack and "protect Idlib."
The rebels expect a major humanitarian crisis, a large wave of displacement and heavy casualties if a Russia-backed offensive takes place, spokesman Najib al-Mustafa said.
Western powers, which never formally entered the conflict other than to back Kurdish-led militias instrumental in ousting the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from its northern stronghold in 2017, have largely watched the brewing battle in Idlib from the sidelines.
The United States, France, and Britain have warned, however, that they would take action if Assad uses chemical weapons in his assault on Idlib, as he allegedly has done in battles to retake other parts of the country.
Russia and Syria and have denied planning a chemical weapons attack, but U.S. special adviser for Syria Jim Jeffrey told reporters on September 6 that "there is lots of evidence" that chemical weapons are being prepared by government forces in Idlib. He said that "any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation" of the war.
Putin said in Tehran that "terrorists" were planning "provocations," in Syria, including the potential use of chemical weapons -- repeating a frequent Russian claim that has been dismissed by the United States and other Western governments. He did not provide evidence.
The UN has warned that an all-out offensive in Idlib will lead to death and destruction even greater than that seen previously in Syria, including the displacement of another 800,000 civilians -- most of whom are likely to seek refuge in nearby Turkey, which already hosts 3.5 million war refugees.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, said the world is looking to Russia, Turkey, and Iran to find a "soft solution to the crisis."
"There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib. There are a million children," he said.
De Mistura's call on the negotiators -- in particular the main power broker, Russia -- to protect civilians was echoed by eight European countries in a joint statement on September 6.
Iranian fighters have provided critical support for Assad throughout the war.
The presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran have met to discuss Syria three times in less than a year. Their previous meetings, in Sochi and Ankara, established so-called de-escalation zones in several areas, including Idlib, that temporarily reduced violence.
All these agreements were later violated, however, as Syrian troops backed by Russia and Iran moved to retake those areas after strafing them with artillery and air strikes -- a pattern which could be repeated in Idlib.
In regaining control over other parts of Syria in the last year, Russian-brokered surrender deals offered safe passage for tens of thousands of rebels and their families to Idlib, which is why the province became the last bastion of the armed resistance.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, Interfax, TASS, and Rossia-24