Russian air strikes pound Syria's Idlib before key summit

Syrian government forces attack rebel-held city

Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed.

"The battle for Idlib is going to be the final major battle", said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters before the summit.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime has retaken large swathes of the country from rebels and militants since Russian Federation intervened militarily on its side in 2015.

Friday's summit in Tehran between key power brokers Erdogan, Putin and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is expected to determine the scope and timing of any assault on Idlib.

An estimated15 to 20 percent of the 60,000 to 70,000 Syrian rebels in Idlib are believed to be terrorists and Jeffrey said the USA "asked repeatedly for permission" from the Russians to rid the area of the terrorists in order to avoid a mass assault.

According to the UN, Idlib is home to about 2.9 million civilians, including 1.4 million displaced from other parts of Syria.

The Tehran talks could determine the scale and the timeline of the Idlib offensive, which the United Nations has warned may displace some 800,000 people.

Among them were positions of the HTS and Ahrar al-Sham groups, the observatory said.

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For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian regime, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's war after the regime forces recaptured almost all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad. They are also due to hold a press conference. "Iran and Russian Federation are the fighting forces in Syria and have brought blood and tears".

Just hours later, the UN Security Council will also meet, at Washington's request, to discuss Idlib.

Neighbouring Turkey has limited sway over the jihadists who control an estimated 60% of the province but it backs rebel groups there and has 12 military "observation points" across the province.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 7, 2018.

All these agreements were later violated, however, as Syrian troops backed by Russian Federation and Iran moved to retake those areas after strafing them with artillery and air strikes - a pattern which could be repeated in Idlib.

Al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper close to the government, reported Monday the military operation could "immediately follow the summit".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday at the meeting that an attack on Idlib would result in a disaster and massacre, and that millions of people would be moving towards the Turkish border in the case that an attack took place. Jeffrey said there will be a "major diplomatic initiative" to stabilize conditions in Syria in the coming weeks, but he would not describe the military mission, other than to say that they must ensure an "enduring defeat" of ISIS.

Idlib is one of the so-called "de-escalation" zones set up as a result of talks by Russia, Turkey and Iran a year ago as Damascus regained control of more of the country.

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