Syria has acknowledged it is preparing an all-out offensive against rebel fighters in Idlib Province as its ally Russia plans major naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions with the West in the region.
After speaking with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on August 30 that his country's military "will go all the way" in Idlib and that the "primary target" will be the Al-Nusra Front, which has had links to Al-Qaeda.
The Jabhat al-Nusra, or Al-Nusra Front, was the name of a militant group that was described as Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. In 2016, it shed its status as Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and changed its name to Fateh al-Sham Front.
The comments come amid growing concerns from the United Nations and the West about the dangers to the civilian population of a major military offensive in the densely populated province.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 29 repeated the UN's warning "about the growing risks of a humanitarian catastrophe in the event of a full-scale military operation” in Idlib, the last major stronghold of Syrian Sunni rebels.
Guterres appealed to the Syrian government, Russia, and all other parties "to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians."
Moualem told reporters that the Syrian military "will do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties" in its offensive in Idlib.
In response to warnings from the United States, Britain, and France against the potential use of chemical weapons, Moualem claimed that Syria’s army has no need to use and does not have such weapons.
Investigations by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have determined that Syrian government forces have used both sarin and chlorine in attacks on rebel forces. Syria has denied the allegations.
Lavrov said after his meeting with Moualem that "it is unacceptable when terrorists who are gathered there try to use [Idlib] to carry out attacks.”
Russia often refers to any armed opponent of the Syrian government as a "terrorist."
Earlier on August 30, the Russian Defense Ministry announced plans to launch major naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean later this week, with Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov saying the difficult situation in Syria justified carrying out the naval drills.
The drills will be carried out from September 1 to September 8 and will involve 25 warships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 aircraft, the Defense Ministry said on August 30.
The ministry said the maneuvers will focus on antiaircraft, antisubmarine, and demining exercises.
Russia has cited the warning from Western powers in accusing the United States of building up its own forces in the Middle East in preparation for a possible strike on Syrian government forces -- something the Pentagon has denied.