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A final Syrian showdown looms. Millions of lives are at risk. Here are the stakes.

The Syrian town of Atimah, in Idlib province along the border with Turkey, shown in October. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)
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With Syria’s rebels nearing defeat after seven years at war, President Bashar al-Assad’s army says it is turning its firepower against their final stronghold. The target, Idlib province, is largely controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked militant group.

Caught in the middle are millions of civilians with nowhere left to run.

Public pronouncements by Syrian and Russian officials foreshadow a devastating attack if diplomacy and the pleas of aid groups for restraint are not heeded. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Idlib’s militants as “festering abscesses” that should be “liquidated.” A day later, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said his government’s forces would go “all the way.”

Using unusually urgent language, the United Nations’ Syria envoy, Staffan di Mistura, warned Thursday that the people of Idlib province are facing the prospect of a “perfect storm.”

Why is Idlib provinceso important?

A defeat of the armed opposition in the sprawling northern region of Idlib would effectively end Syria’s civil war. With rebels defeated across the rest of Syria, Assad’s government has implied that an all-out offensive there is imminent. In public, Russia is also ratcheting up the pressure, adding to its flotilla of warships in the Mediterranean Sea and escalating its rhetoric.

Idlib province is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, a hard-line group affiliated until recently with al-Qaeda. As well as being the strongest military force, HTS has also targeted civilian institutions, using arrests, threats and assassinations to bring them in line.

A major battle in Idlib could have disastrous humanitarian consequences. After seven years of war, the once quiet province is now bursting with some 3 million people, more than half displaced from elsewhere in Syria. With Turkey’s border sealed shut to the north, those people could have nowhere to run.

Capitalizing on the growing fears, the Syrian army is dropping leaflets that encourage the rebels and their supporters to surrender. “Until when will you and your families live in fear and anxiety?” read one, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. “How long will your children remain without hope or future?”

What would an all-out offensive look like?

Disastrous, according to relief organizations. The World Health Organization has already warned of rising acute levels of malnutrition in Idlib province, with as many as 1.6 million people now relying on food assistance. These problems have intensified during previous government offensives after Syrian and Russian warplanes targeted agricultural areas and the markets they stock.

Warplanes have also routinely bombed residential areas, rescue workers and hospitals, causing massive bloodshed and hobbling the already overburdened systems set up to treat survivors.

Intense fighting would probably displace hundreds of thousands of Syrians, most of them civilians, toward the Turkish border, forcing Ankara to open the border or leave a vast number of civilians camped in tents and vulnerable to attack.

On Thursday, di Mistura urged the establishment of a humanitarian corridor through which civilians could be evacuated. It was unclear exactly where those routes could lead, however.

United Nations official Staffan de Mistura warned Aug. 30 that Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria, could see "the most horrific tragedy" of the Syrian war (Video: Reuters)

Can a bloodbath be averted?

Idlib province’s fate now rests with Turkey and Russia. Although on opposite sides of the conflict — Ankara supports the rebels, and Moscow is one of Assad’s major allies — the two powers share an interest in averting a humanitarian catastrophe. Their diplomacy on the matter is likely to culminate Sept. 7 when officials from both countries meet in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, along with representatives from Iran.

Any major Idlib offensive could spell disaster for Turkey. The country already hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees and is ill-equipped to take in the hundreds of thousands more who would probably be displaced along its border in the event of a major battle. Russia, for its part, knows that a wide-ranging battle could suck it further into the Syrian morass, a scenario Moscow wants to avoid.

For now, Turkey is trying to persuade local groups in Idlib province to turn against HTS and accept a negotiated settlement with the Syrian government, as rebel groups have done in several other parts of Syria as the war winds down.

As part of an earlier “de-escalation” deal for the province, the Turkish military maintains a small presence at a dozen or more observation points in the area, some of which it appears to have reinforced in recent weeks. Yet there are few indications that the Turkish army would defend them if an offensive began.

HTS and its even more hard-line ally, Huras al-Din, could yet fight to the death. Both groups base their reputation and popularity on their willingness to fight Assad’s military to the end. There are few incentives for either to back down at this stage.

Could a smaller offensivebe in the cards?

There are indications that Turkey and Russia would be in favor of a more limited and phased offensive aimed at isolating and defeating HTS before a separate coalition of rebel groups surrender to the Syrian authorities.

“Each external actor in the conflict can use a limited conflict along Idlib’s periphery effectively to negotiate with their various allies and enemies over the final outcome for the province,” Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, wrote in a recent research note. “The danger,” he wrote, “particularly for Turkey, is that if these efforts fail to produce a local opposition ready to make concessions to Assad and Moscow, a major escalation in Idlib becomes inevitable.”

Why is Russia warning against the use of chemical weapons in Idlib?

Russian and Syrian state media have spoken repeatedly in recent weeks of a shadowy plot by the opposition to carry out a ­chemical-weapons attack in Idlib. The state media have specifically accused the White Helmets, a group of civilian first responders, of transporting chemicals to prepare an attack.

Previous chlorine gas attacks in Syria have widely been attributed to Assad’s air force. But in the run-up to those attacks, Syrian and Russian outlets have published similar stories in what may have been an orchestrated effort to sow confusion about the source of the attacks. There is no known evidence implicating the White Helmets in any chemical strikes.

Senior U.S. officials warned both governments Tuesday against using chemical weapons in any forthcoming offensive. 

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that the United States would “respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria . . . in a swift and appropriate manner.”

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