When the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran meet on Friday in Tehran, all eyes will be on their diplomacy reaching a last-minute deal to avert a bloodbath in Idlib, Syria’s crowded northwestern province and last stronghold of the opposition.
The three leaders — whose nations are all under US sanctions — have an interest in working together to contain a potentially catastrophic offensive by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces to recapture the province, but Idlib is complicated and they have little common ground when it comes to Syria.
The province and surrounding area is home to about three million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria — but also an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including Al Qaida-linked militants.
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 civil war after they recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Al Assad.
A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalising, and could hurt Russia’s longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria’s postwar reconstruction.