This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that an attack on Syria’s Idlib Province could cause a “massacre,” as government forces prepare for a major offensive against the last rebel-held region.
“A serious massacre could take place if there is a rain of missiles there,” Erdogan told journalists on September 5 while flying back from an official visit to Kyrgyzstan.
Erdogan spoke about what he described as a “very merciless process” unfolding in Idlib, warning of the risk that heavy fighting would trigger an influx of refugees to Turkey.
Erdogan’s comments come as Syrian troops mass near the northwestern province bordering Turkey for a major offensive to retake the last region still held by rebels fighting against the government.
Russia, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, resumed air strikes on Idlib on September 4 after a 22-day pause, killing at least 12 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Russia has not confirmed that it has resumed air strikes, but a senior Russian diplomat sought to ease concerns about the offensive.
“We, as we have said many times before, act precisely, selectively [in military operations in Syria], trying to minimize possible risks to the peaceful population,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on September 5.
Idlib is home to an estimated 3 million civilians and the United Nations has warned that some 800,000 people could be forced from their homes by any major government offensives. The war already has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Turkey is backing opposition groups but has sponsored with Russia and Iran, Assad’s other key ally, a series of negotiations on the conflict.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran on September 7 to discuss the situation in Syria.
Ryabkov said that the military situation in Syria “will become clearer” after the meeting. He did not elaborate.
Russia has given the Syrian government crucial support throughout the war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
Russia began a campaign of air strikes against Assad’s foes in September 2015 and stepped up military operations on the ground, helping turn the tide of the conflict in his favor and avert his potential ouster.