TEHRAN, Iran - Iran and Russia on Friday backed a military campaign to retake the last rebel-held stronghold in Syria as Turkey pleaded for a cease-fire, narrowing the chances of a diplomatic solution to avoid what many say would be a bloody humanitarian disaster.
The trilateral summit in Tehran involving Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan puts further pressure on the rebel forces still operating in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, including about 10,000 hard-core jihadists and al-Qaida-linked fighters.
It left the chance, however slim, for further diplomacy to try to separate civilians and rebels from the Islamic militants in Idlib.
While Putin called for the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria,” he left open the possibility of a cease-fire. Rouhani as well spoke of “cleansing the Idlib region of terrorists,” while also noting the need of protecting civilians.
Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, fears a military offensive will touch off a flood of refugees and destabilize areas it now holds in Syria. 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.”
Erdogan also sought to use Persian literature to drive home his point in Tehran, quoting the poet Saadi: “If you’ve no sympathy for human pain, the name of a human you cannot retain.”
The U.S. also warned against an assault in Idlib, with Ambassador Nikki Haley telling the U.N. Security Council that “the consequences will be dire.”