Calm before the Storm in Idlib: Turkey Sends Tanks, Military Carriers As Offensive Looms in Northern Syria
Heavily damaged buildings seen after Assad Regime carried out air strikes in Idlib, Syria (Photo: MiddleEast Monitor)

Syrian and Russian forces are carrying out increasingly intensive air raids on rebel-fighter held positions in Syria’s northern province of Idlib. The strikes reportedly targeted eastern and southern parts of Idlib, as well as the bordering province of Hama.

On Saturday the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring body, and the opposition-affiliated Idlib Media Centre said government helicopters had dropped 19 barrel bombs on targets in Idlib and northern Hama, and Russian warplanes had staged 68 strikes.

But, the Syrian forces are yet to launch an all-out offensive on Idlib. Hectic diplomacy is being undertaken to stop such an attack as there are millions of lives at stake. The UN has warned of major humanitarian crisis if the offensive takes place in the northwestern province, where an estimated three million people reside, half of whom are already internally displaced.

According to a report by Aljazeera, Iran, Russia and Turkey are trying to discuss ways to minimise civilian damage as Turkey has warned that it will back some of the rebel factions in Idlib that it has supported till date. Over the past week, Turkey, which backs certain rebel groups in Idlib, has been sending reinforcements to its 12 observation points inside opposition-held areas, which were set up under a "de-escalation" agreement it reached with Russia and Iran last year.

Heavy weapons, including tanks, military carriers and batteries, have already entered Idlib, adding that there is a contingency plan for the deployment of Turkish soldiers on the ground in the event of an offensive on Idlib, according to this report.

Meanwhile, armed opposition in Idlib is still making extensive preparations for the eventuality of a Syrian government offensive. Fortifications, tunnel digging and defensive works have been carried out from the Turkmen Mountain in northern Latakia province in the west all the way to the town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province.

A separate offensive in Syria also pits the possibility of a face-off between Russian and U.S. forces. Russia has warned the U.S. military twice in the last week that its forces, along with Syrian regime units, are prepared to attack in an area where dozens of US troops are located, according to several US defense officials.

Russia claims that there are militants in the area protected by US troops.

Moscow's declaration has sharply raised U.S. commanders' concerns that American forces would be at risk if a Russian attack goes forward, CNN has learned. And it has sparked U.S. warnings to Moscow not to challenge the U.S. military presence.