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Fate of Syria's city Idlib in balance at Tehran summit

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Iran\'s President Hassan Rouhani, left, Russia\'s President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey\'s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lock hands during a group photo in Ankara, Turkey.

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08th-Sep-2018       
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AFP, Tehran :
The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey were due to meet Friday in Tehran for a summit set to decide the future of Idlib province amid fears of a humanitarian disaster in Syria's last major rebel bastion.
Hundreds of civilians have begun to flee the northwestern province as government forces and their allies ready for what could be the last-and bloodiest-major battle of Syria's devastating seven-year civil war, which has already left more than 350,000 people dead.
Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control. The province is home to some three million people-around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.
Neighbouring Turkey, which has long backed Syrian rebels, fears the assault could prompt an influx of desperate Syrians attempting to find safety on its territory.
But regime backers Russia and Iran have sworn to wipe out "terrorists" and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.
Eight leading aid agencies warned Friday that "once again, it will be the most vulnerable who will pay the heaviest price". They appealed to world leaders to "urgently work together to avoid this horrific scenario".
Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of negotiations launched after Russia's game-changing 2015 military intervention which has eclipsed the Western-backed Geneva negotiations led by the UN.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani will host his Russian and Turkish counterparts Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday afternoon. Iranian television reported the three leaders would each have "bilateral meetings" on the sidelines of the main summit. They are also due to hold a press conference.
Just hours later, the UN Security Council will also meet, at Washington's request, to discuss Idlib.
The Tehran meetings could determine the scale and the timeline of the Idlib offensive, which the UN has warned may displace 800,000 people.
Idlib is dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
Russia wants Turkey, which borders the province, to use its influence to rein in the group and rival rebels.
Turkey has limited sway over the jihadists who control an estimated 60 percent of the province, but it backs other rebel groups and has 12 military "observation points" across the area.
Idlib's population has swelled as the regime chalked up a series of victories across the country, reaching evacuation deals that saw tens of thousands of people bussed there.
While Ankara has said it will try to prevent the assault taking place, both Moscow and Tehran confirmed their support for Assad.
Russia said the Syrian army was preparing to solve the problem of "terrorism" in the rebel stronghold.
"We have killed, we are killing and we will kill terrorists... whether that be in Aleppo, Idlib or other parts of Syria," said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Her Iranian counterpart, Bahram Ghassemi, assured Damascus of Tehran's support and willingness to "continue its role as adviser and help" for the Idlib campaign.
Al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper close to the government, reported Monday that the army's operation is likely "to immediately follow the summit".
Tehran has said it wants to help Assad's forces to rid Idlib of rebels with the "least possible loss of human life", while Moscow said efforts were ongoing to separate "normal fighters from terrorists".
"Some people have been optimistic for the prospects of a deal, a reprieve, in Idlib because of Turkey's difficult economic circumstances," said Sam Heller, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Any new flood of refugees towards Turkey would come at a time when Ankara is "vulnerable," he told AFP, adding it would be a "huge new burden on Turkey and would overwhelm its humanitarian capacities."
Each of the three nations has its own interests in the yearslong war in Syria.
Iran wants to keep its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighboring Israel and Lebanon. Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilizing areas it now holds in Syria. And Russia wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America's long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict.

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