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End of Syria's Civil War? Major Military Assault Looms on Last Rebel-Held Stronghold

A Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet landing at the Hmeymim air base near Latakia, Syria, Photo, Russian Defense Ministry on October 22, 2015

Seven years after Syria's bloody civil war erupted, forces loyal to the government are preparing for a major military assault on the last remaining rebel-held province of Idlib, located in the northwest part of the country.

The UN envoy for Syria says there are at least 10,000 al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Idlib, along with some 70,000 other fighters from various Islamic terror groups.

Syrian troops, backed by Russian forces and Iranian militias, waged a brutal campaign over the past two years to recapture territory once held by the rebels. Idlib is the final stand, and the fall of the city would effectively mean the end of Syria's brutal civil war.

"What we need to do now is to wipe out those terrorist groups which persist, particularly within the de-escalation area of Idlib," Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, told reporters.

Syria's foreign minister has promised that government forces will "go all the way" to defeat the rebels and bring the country back under the full control of President Bashar al-Assad.

"The decision of Syrian authorities is to exterminate al-Nusa (al-Qaeda-linked group) in Idlib and we will go all the way," Walid al-Moualem, Syria's foreign minister, said following meetings with his Russian counterpart.

For weeks, Syria's military has been dropping leaflets urging rebel fighters in Idlib to give up their arms and surrender.

"We say that the priority is to consolidate with any local groups that wish to do so," Walid told reporters. "We will exert all efforts to avoid civilian causalities."

Caught in the middle in Idlib are millions of civilians with nowhere left to run, as the entire province is surrounded by either Syrian, Iranian, Russian or Turkish forces.

The UN is warning that the citizens of Idlib face a "perfect storm" and a "chilling" military escalation as worries grow that both militants and the government could resort to using chemical weapons in the battle.

"The issue of avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial and would be totally unacceptable," Staffan de Mistura, a top UN official, said Thursday. "We are all aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine."

Russia, which has given crucial military support to Assad's forces, is also preparing for the offensive. It has deployed 25 ships, including a missile cruiser and some 30 fighter jets in the Mediterranean off the coast of Syria, for a military exercise scheduled to begin next week.

"From the 1st to the 8th September this year, for the first time in the history of modern Russia, drills will be carried out in the Mediterranean sea by the Navy and aerospace forces," Vladimir Korolev, Russia's Navy chief, said Thursday. "Taking part will be ships from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets and the Caspian flotilla and also long-range aircraft."

Despite the Pentagon's denials, Russia claims the US is also gearing up in the region for any fallout from the offensive.

"They (the United States) may build up missile capabilities for strikes on Syria in just over 24 hours," Maria Zakharova, a Russian spokesperson, told reporters Thursday. "Currently, the strike grouping of the United States, France, and Great Britain comprises strategic and tactical aircraft at airbases in Jordan, Kuwait and Crete."

The United Nations estimates that almost 12 million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the civil war in March 2011. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, more than 500,000 people have lost their lives.

With Assad's regime having largely won the war against the insurgents, analysts warn that what comes next could be even more dangerous and deadly as Russia, Iran, and its proxies, along with Turkey and Syria try to reap the rewards from their various strategic interests in the seven-year battle.

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