Last-ditch talks to avert battle for Syria’s Idlib

Ali Abdullah Ayyoub the Syrian defence minister left met Amir Hatami his Iranian counterpart in Damascus

Ali Abdullah Ayyoub the Syrian defence minister left met Amir Hatami his Iranian counterpart in Damascus

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as "a festering abscess".

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said on Tuesday: "Any Russian and/or Syrian regime offence on Idlib and any kind of escalation in that area, we would hold them responsible and we would hold them accountable for that, most especially, for the use of chemical weapons".

An assault on Idlib by Damascus and Moscow could be the last major battle of the civil war that has torn Syria apart since 2011.

Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition's delegation to United Nations talks with the government, called de Mistura's proposal "unrealistic".

Idlib is the largest remaining rebel stronghold.

Russian Federation will begin a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean on Saturday, the Ministry of Defense announced, a move the Kremlin said was justified by a failure to deal with militants in Syria's Idlib province.

Russia, a close ally of Syria, became involved in anti-terror operations in the militancy-infested country in September 2015 upon a formal request from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The fighters must be defeated, Mr de Mistura said, but not at the expense of thousands of civilian lives.

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Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that US officials are privately pressing Russia to ensure no chemical attack occurs in Idlib - even as Russian officials insinuated that it's the West that is likely staging a chemical assault of its own as a "false flag" pretext to once again strike Mr. Assad's forces.

"What we need to do now is to wipe out those terrorist groups which persist, particularly within [Idlib]", said Mr. Lavrov, accusing rebel groups within Idlib of targeting Russian bases with military drone attacks.

There were still negotiations over the offensive going on between Russian Federation and Turkey, as well as with Iran, which also supports Damascus in the war, the official said.

He said a full-scale military operation in Idlib could lead to a "humanitarian catastrophe".

Taking those areas would bring Assad's regime close to regaining control over highways running from Aleppo to Hama and Latakia, two of Syria's most important pre-war roads.

TASS cited the defence ministry as saying that 25 warships and submarines and 30 planes, including fighter jets and strategic bombers, would take part, and that the drills would involve anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-mining exercises.

"Attempts are being made to impede these processes and use various provocateurs, including extremists and well-known provocateurs calling themselves the White Helmets, who are famous for staging chemical weapons attacks and blaming them on the Syrian government in order to provide the western countries with an excuse to carry out attacks on Syria", the Russian top diplomat pointed out.

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