US President Donald Trump on Monday warned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad to not "recklessly attack" the rebel-held Idlib province, saying the offense could cause "human tragedy."
Damascus is preparing a phased offensive to regain governmental control in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria which is controlled by insurgents fighting Assad's regime. Thousands of government troops and allied fighters have been grouping in areas surrounding the province.
Read more: Merkel to Trump - restrain Russia over Idlib
Trump's remarks came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that "terrorists must be purged" from the region after meeting with Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Monday.
"Syria's territorial integrity should be safeguarded and all tribes and groups, as one society, should start the reconstruction process, and the refugees should return to their homes," Zarif said.
Assad and Zarif also discussed what they referred to as "western pressure" on their respective countries, an apparent reference to re-imposed US sanctions on Iran.
Leaders from Iran, Turkey and Russia are set to meet in Iran to discuss the situation in Idlib in the coming days. Russia and Iran have insisted that militant groups in the province must be defeated and both are expected to support any assault by Assad's forces.
Iran has long been a backer of Assad's regime, lending crucial military and economic support throughout Syria's seven-year civil war. Iran's defense minister traveled to Damascus to meet with his Syrian counterpart and sign an agreement for defensive cooperation between the two countries.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington views an assault on Idlib as an escalation of the conflict in Syria. The State Department said the US would respond to any chemical weapons attack by Assad's forces.
Last month, the US, UK and France vowed to "respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime." All three, as well as others, have accused the Assad regime of using weaponized chlorine against his own people.
On Monday, Assad and Zarif said that resorting to "threats and pressure reflect the failure of those countries to realize their plans for the region after Syria and Iran confronted them."
Idlib is home to some 3 million people. Tens of thousands fled to the region after surrendering in government offenses elsewhere.
UN officials warned last week that civilians are at risk and a Syrian offensive could trigger a wave of displacement that could uproot an estimated 800,000 people and discourage refugees from returning home.
dv/aw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)