Syria's Last Major Military Operation Against Rebels Begins as Russia Looks to Talk With West

Russia has said it was planning to invite France, Germany and Turkey to an upcoming summit on the war in Syria as the war-torn country's military launched an operation to retake the final rebel-held province.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu Monday to discuss what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as "preparations for a four-lateral summit of the Russian, Turkish, German and French leaders on the Syrian settlement that is planned to be held soon," according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. The two men would discuss solving the crisis in Syria "through maintaining an inclusive national dialogue on the basis of generally recognized principles of international law."

Russia is a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the two European states and Turkey have sponsored efforts to overthrow him since a 2011 uprising also backed by the U.S. As Russia and Iran helped the Syrian government reclaim most of the country, the two Assad allies established a joint peace process along with Turkey, which has deployed troops in the final opposition bastion of Idlib in northwest Syria.

A Syrian man holds a leaflet stamped with the government forces' seal and dropped by helicopters flying over the Syrian city of Saraqib, southwest of Aleppo on August 9. It reads in Arabic: "Which do you prefer? This was Syria before terrorism and its militiamen, and this is what armed terrorism has one to Syria and its people. The fate of your family, children, and future depend on your decision. Quickly join the local reconciliations to return the smile and guarantee the future." OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported Friday that the Syrian military was expanding its operations against the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group that later rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and joined the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham coalition. The jihadi alliance, labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. in May, is the dominant actor in Idlib and Assad said last month that he would retake the renegade region by force.

Over the weekend, the Syrian military conducted a series of airstrikes in Idlib, according to the U.K.-based, pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Monday, the monitor reported that the Syrian military and its allies were heavily shelling rebel positions in a triangle formed by the Al-Ghab plains, Latakia mountains and the city of Jisr al-Shughour and that pro-government reinforcements were arriving en masse.

The new offensive came despite the Turkish military presence there designed to enforce a de-escalation deal reached last year by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. Similar ceasefires have unraveled with swift government victories in Daraa, Ghouta and Homs, but Turkey did not have troops posted there. Turkey set up its so-called observation posts in Idlib after helping rebels oust the People's Protection Units (PKK), a Kurdish movement considered a terrorist organization by Ankara due to its alleged links to the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party.

The PKK is also a key part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurd-led alliance backed by the U.S.-led coalition in its fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The U.S. has declined to support Syrian Democratic Forces fighters who battle the Turkish-led operation, and the Syrian Democratic Forces' political wing has said it would be willing to assist the Syrian military retake Idlib as the two rival factions launched negotiations. In a statement released Monday, the Syrian Democratic Forces said they were "following the situation and military developments in Syria in general," but denied they were currently involved in the government operation in Idlib.

RTX6DZ4W (3)
A map shows areas of control in Syria as of July 31. After retaking key rebel enclaves in Ghouta, Homs and Daraa, the Syrian military has begun attacking the last major opposition-held bastion of Idlib, where Turkish troops are deployed in an attempt to enforce a ceasefire. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

The Syrian government's nationwide victories have led Assad's Western opponents to largely abandon efforts to oust him despite accusing him of war crimes. Last month, France coordinated with Russia in delivering humanitarian assistance to the former rebel-held enclave of Ghouta. Russia has sought to coordinate with the U.S. as well, something President Donald Trump has supported but has not yet occurred.

As Trump attempted to greater align the U.S. position on Syria with that of Russia, he escalated a row with fellow NATO Western military alliance member Turkey. In response to the jailing and detainment of U.S. Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, Trump has increasingly sanctioned Turkey, which has already undergone an economic crisis that could collapse the country's national currency and potentially its stake in the conflict in neighboring Syria.