The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey held talks in Tehran on Friday to determine the future of the province of Idlib amid growing fears of a humanitarian disaster in the last great rebel stronghold of Syria.
Shortly after arriving in Iran, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erodgan met for a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, said an AFP photographer.
They met at a conference center in the north of the Iranian capital when an offensive by the Syrian regime against the last opposition stronghold seemed imminent.
The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of negotiations launched after the Russian military intervention of change of 2015 that has overshadowed the negotiations of Geneva supported by the West led by the UN.
Iranian and Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has underpinned the Damascus regime, which has allowed him to regain control in the seven-year civil war that has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2011.
On Friday morning, Russian air strikes bombed rebel positions in the southwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory said.
Among them are the positions of the jihadist alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), as well as the hardline group Ahrar al-Sham, said the monitor based in Britain.
Hundreds of civilians have already begun to flee Idlib as government forces and their allies are ready for what could be the last, and bloodiest, main battle of the devastating conflict.
Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and the adjacent areas make up the largest part of the Syrian territory that is still under the control of the opposition. The province is home to some three million people, half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.
& # 39; Horrible scenario & # 39;
Turkey, which has long supported the Syrian rebels, fears that the assault will provoke an avalanche of desperate Syrians into its territory.
But supporters of the regime, Russia and Iran, have sworn to eliminate "terrorists" and Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.
Eight major aid agencies warned on Friday that "once again, it will be the most vulnerable who will pay the highest price." They called on world leaders to "work together urgently to avoid this horrible scenario."
The Tehran talks could determine the scale and timing of Idlib's offensive, which the UN warned could displace some 800,000 people.
Later on Friday, the UN Security Council also had to meet, at the request of Washington, to discuss Idlib.
Russia wants Turkey, which borders the province, to use its influence to control the dominant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, as well as rival rebels.
Turkey has limited control over the jihadists who control approximately 60 percent of the province, but supports other rebel groups and has 12 military "observation points" throughout the area.
The population of Idlib has increased as the regime accumulated a series of victories across the country, reaching evacuation agreements that saw tens of thousands of people transported there.
& # 39; Liquidation of terrorists & # 39;
Russia said the Syrian army is preparing to solve the problem of "terrorism" in the rebel stronghold and reiterated on Friday that its position has not changed.
"A total and definitive liquidation of terrorists is necessary throughout the territory of Syria," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
However, he stressed that Moscow "is doing everything in its power to ensure that the human losses and damage to the civilian population of Idlib is limited as much as possible."
His Iranian counterpart, Bahram Ghassemi, assured Damascus of Tehran's support and willingness to "continue his role of adviser and aid" for the Idlib campaign.
Al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper close to the government, said on Monday that the military operation could "follow immediately to the summit."
Analyst Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group said there was some hope for an agreement.
Any new flood of refugees to Turkey would come at a time when Ankara is "vulnerable," he told AFP, adding that it would be a "huge new burden for Turkey and would exceed its humanitarian capabilities."
"I do not think any of these countries, or really anyone, has an interest in doing something that is really destabilizing for Turkey," he added.