The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey will held talks in Tehran to discuss how to move forward in Syria. Damascus is gearing up for a major military operation as the USA and the Israeli lobby threaten it with intervention.

The three leaders are engaged in the so-called Astana process, which aims to de-escalate violence in Syria to facilitate a political transition and a sustainable end to the seven-year-old war in the country. It is the third meeting of its kind and is expected to be dominated by discussion relating to Syria’s Idlib occupied governorate.

Located in western Syria, Idlib is the last major stronghold of anti-government armed mercenary groups, many of which are hardcore Jihadi terrorists.

The region is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. The total number of extremist forces in the area is estimated at between 10,000 and 60,000, among a population of some 3.5 million people.

The Syrian government seems determined to carry out such a campaign, involving air support from Russia and ground support from Iranian paramilitaries and military advisers.

If such an offensive was successful in Idlib, it would result in the defeat of the last major Jihadist force in Syria. However, it would not bring an end to divisions in the country. Large parts in the north-east are controlled by US-backed Kurdish militias, and an American military base is still present on the Syria-Jordan border.

Neither would it resolve Israel’s conflict with Iranian forces on Syrian territory. But it would eliminate a force, for which an end to violence and negotiations with Damascus is not an option.

Turkey, which borders Idlib, objects to this course of action, claiming it would cause a major exodus of civilian population into Turkey, which could be used by Jihadists to infiltrate the country.

The meeting in Iran takes place amid disagreement as to whether the Jihadists – who used the governorate to launch regular attacks on other parts of Syria – can be defeated there without a major military operation.

As the preparations for an offensive are underway, there has been vocal protest coming from Washington. US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley went so far as to attribute an attack to Damascus before the liberation offense even happened.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US has ‘zero intelligence’ on the possession of chemical weapons by the “opposition” in Syria, contradicting previous statements by US officials, which explicitly accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham of using chemical weapons.

The USA has attacked Syrian forces in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons twice already. If a third such offensive is anything like the previous two, it would be unlikely to disrupt an operation in Idlib in any serious way.

A more large-scale attack, however, would bring the USA much closer to a military confrontation with Russia, whose soldiers are embedded with Syrian units. / ABC Flash Point Military News 2018.

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