The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey have begun a summit on Syria as a bloody offensive on Idlib province looms, despite warnings from the US and others against the attack.
The summit between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting the north-western Syrian province.
Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about three million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria.
That also includes an estimated 10,000 hardcore fighters, including al Qaida-linked militants.
The three leaders each held bilateral talks before the meeting began in Tehran. As photographers took pictures of the three leaders Mr Rouhani, smiling, reached for their hands.
“The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end,” Mr Rouhani said, adding that terrorism must “be uprooted in Syria, particularly in Idlib”.
Mr Erdogan appealed for a “reasonable way out” to avoid a bloodbath in Idlib.
Iran, Russia and Turkey all have competing interests over Syria, and all also face US sanctions under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Iran wants to retain its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighbouring Israel and Lebanon.
Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and further destabilisation of areas it holds in Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America’s long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict.
Early on Friday, a series of air strikes struck villages in south-west Idlib, targeting insurgent posts and killing a fighter, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Mr Abdurrahman said suspected Russian planes carried out the attack.