Syrian FM says regime will try to avoid civilian deaths in Idlib

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The Syrian government - backed by its ally Russian Federation - is vowing to go "all the way" after groups they consider as terrorists.

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.

He also spoke of "warnings and counter-warnings" between the United States and Russian Federation, though he did not elaborate.

The Russian Defense Ministry told reporters Thursday that it would begin major military drills in the Mediterranean Sea throughout the first week of September in an exercise it claimed would focus on anti-air and anti-submarine defense maneuvers.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said at a news briefing Thursday that Moscow had information that a large volume of toxic substances had been delivered to the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

De Mistura floated two options: one to not accelerate military escalation to allow more time for talks, and another to "allow and facilitate a credible - credible - humanitarian corridor to allow the civilian population to temporarily evacuate to a safer area".

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

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On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey is collaborating with Russian Federation and Iran "to prevent an Aleppo-like disaster" in Idlib. "That's why Turkey is negotiating with some of the groups to convince them to drop their weapons, but it's not that easy as each group has power and earns revenues in their areas of control", the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

The leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey are slated to meet next week in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, where many are hoping for a deal to avert a calamitous battle over Idlib.

Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as "a festering abscess". A source has told Reuters Assad is preparing a phased offensive to regain the province.

Thousands of refugees had fled to Turkey after the regime assault targeting Aleppo in 2016.

As government forces advanced, they offered residents and one-time opponents the choice either to reconcile with Assad's rule or board buses for Idlib, where al-Qaida-linked groups have eclipsed the moderate opposition.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Evacuations from eastern Ghouta, Deraa and other rebel territories captured by the regime have contributed to the displacement of more than half a million people to or within Idlib in the past six months, the United Nations said.