Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Lavrov has warned the West not to interfere in Syrian and Russian forces engaged in antiterror actions in the northwest province of Idlib: "I hope our Western partners will not give in to [rebel] provocations and will not obstruct an antiterror operation," he said.
This as Reuters reports that a planned"phased offensive" is imminent and as massive Syrian Army reinforcements and military convoys have been filmed this week heading toward the last major anti-Assad holdout.
The offensive would initially target southern and western parts of the insurgent territory, but not yet Idlib city, said the source, an official in the regional alliance backing Assad.
“The final touches for the first stage will be completed in the coming hours,” the official added, without saying when it would start.
Lavrov called Idlib a "festering abscess" that needed to be “liquidated” of terrorists and jihadists, according to reports.
"I hope our Western partners will not give in to [rebel] provocations and will not obstruct an antiterror operation," he said in comments made Wednesday.
Mention of "provocations" is a reference to Russian assertions this week that the al-Qaeda group that controls Idlib, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, is planning to stage a "chemical attack" incident in order to blame Syrian and Russian forces, in the hopes that the West will intervene militarily against Damascus.
Russia now says it has staged its largest naval build-up in the Mediterranean since its entry into the war at the invitation of Damascus in 2015.
Lavrov further mentioned Turkey in his Wednesday statements, saying Moscow was in contact with Turkey and the U.S. on the situation in Idlib, noting there is a "full political understanding" between Moscow and Ankara, though the Russian FM didn't provide details.
Meanwhile, NATO has confirmed the large Russian battleship and naval presence off Syria's coast, and has called on all external powers to exercise "restraint"; and a United Nations spokesman has warned that "up to 800,000 people could be displaced and that the number of people who are in need of humanitarian assistance."
In statements made on Tuesday the US State Department reiterated to reportersthe United States "will respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria ... in a swift and appropriate manner."
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said further that senior U.S. officials have engaged with their Russian counterparts "to make this point very clear to Damascus" — that chemical weapons "will not be tolerated" — and could meet with massive military response. She also repeated that Assad would be held responsible.
Russian state sources on Wednesday cited the Russian Defense Ministry to say it has detailed intelligence confirming militants in Idlib are planning a chemical "provocation". Per RT News:
The Russian military has received information from several sources in Idlib Province that “a large supply of poisonous agents has been brought to the city of Saraqib on two trucks from the village of Afs,” Major-General Aleksey Tsygankov, head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the opposing sides in Syria, said in a statement.
The chemicals were delivered to an arms depot, used by the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, “accompanied by the eight members of the White Helmets organization,” Tsygankov said, adding that the cargo was met by two high-ranked Ahrar al-Sham commanders.
Russia says that as Idlib's al-Qaeda groups face imminent defeat, they plan to stage an event to gain the attention of the West, which has already promised it will hit back at Syrian government positions.
Analysts have predicted the Idlib campaign will be the bloodiest and longest grinding final battle of the war.
But what should by now be obvious to all is this: Assad, on the verge of total victory, has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to commit the one act that would ensure his own demise after emerging victorious after seven years of war.