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With millions of lives in the balance, Iran, Russia and Turkey discuss Syria’s fate

Russia, Iran and Bashar al-Assad's regime are on the verge of launching a major assault on Idlib, the remaining Syrian holdout of both radical militants and more moderate opposition, in what is likely the last big battle of the war. Special correspondent Reza Sayah reports, then Nick Schifrin learns more from Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran met today for high-stakes talks over Syria and the looming last major battle of that war in Idlib.

    Idlib is the final remaining holdout of radical militants and more moderate armed opposition to the Syrian regime. It's also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians who have fled the war and sought refuge.

    But now Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime are on the verge of launching a major assault.

    In a moment, Nick Schifrin will join us.

    But, first, special correspondent Reza Sayah reports on the summit from Tehran.

  • Reza Sayah:

    The summit brought together the three presidents who will help decide Syria's fate.

    Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani both support an assault on Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. Russia is the new regional power broker. And, today, its warplanes bombed Idlib on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose government Russia and Iran helped save.

    Russia says it wants to finish the job.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    The main task at this stage is to banish militants from the province of Idlib. We hope that the members of the terrorist organizations have enough common sense to stop resistance and to lay down their arms.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Iranian-backed Hezbollah troops are fighting for the Syrian government. Iran hopes to extend their presence in Syria and counter Israel.

    But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned against an offensive into Idlib. He fears a new flood of refugees on top of the three-and-a-half million already in his country.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Turkey does not have the resources or power to host a further three million people. We need to take a joint step to prevent migration from this area.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Iran and Russia claim Idlib is home to terrorists.

    Rouhani said Syria should root out militants in Idlib and also force out U.S. forces.

  • Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    The illegal presence and interference of America in Syria, which has led to the continuation of insecurity in that country, must end quickly.

  • Reza Sayah:

    About 2,000 U.S. troops are deployed across bases in Northern Syria, inside land largely controlled by Kurds. Their mission? Fighting the last pockets of ISIS, far from the potential Idlib battlefield.

    In the past, President Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria completely, but, this week, top advisers say he reversed course and wants a U.S. military presence there indefinitely. He's also warning against any all-out assault on Idlib, specifically the use of chemical weapons.

  • President Donald Trump:

    That cannot be a slaughter. If it's a slaughter, the world is going to get very, very angry, and the United States is going to get very angry too.

  • Reza Sayah:

    In the Security Council today, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley echoed that warning.

  • Nikki Haley:

    The Assad regime must halt its offensive. Russia and Iran, as countries with influence over the regime, must stop this catastrophe.

    Meanwhile, civilians in Idlib are bracing for an assault. They even showed their children how to use improvised gas masks. And in a show of defiance, some protested the Syrian government's looming military action.

    Back in Tehran, Putin, Erdogan, and Rouhani issued a statement that the Syrian conflict can end only through a negotiated political process, not through the military. They also agreed to hold more talks soon in Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And special correspondent Reza Sayah joins me now from Tehran.

    Reza, despite the promise to hold more talks, bottom line, the three parties failed to agree on a peaceful solution in Idlib. So, does that make the battle for Idlib more likely? And does that mean that Iran gets what it wants?

  • Reza Sayah:

    Nick, there were three presidents at the summit today. Two suggested an offensive is the answer. One president, President Erdogan, suggested it wasn't the answer.

    So, if you go by the numbers, it seems that the Idlib battle is likely.

    When it comes to Iran, they certainly asked for what they wanted today. Whether they will get what they want, we will have to see in the coming days and weeks. It'll have — it'll have a lot to do with what happens in Idlib.

    Obviously, Iran has spent a lot of blood and treasure in supporting the Syrian government, supporting their key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at a time when Iran's economy is under tremendous pressure, now under the U.S. sanctions reimposed by President Trump.

    Iran simply can't afford this conflict to go on forever. More bloodshed could cost Iran key support from Europe that it's counting on to push back against Washington.

    So, what Iran wants is an end to this conflict with a decisive battle, a strong, stable Syria, a strong, stable President Bashar al-Assad. Once that happens, Iran believes they can go into Syria, rebuild Syria, present itself to the world as a key player in stabilizing Syria.

    That's what Iran wants. But in the Middle East, getting what you want is rarely easy, especially with so many regional rivals who want something very different.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reza Sayah from Tehran, thank you very much.

    And for more on all this, I turned to Andrew Tabler, joining me in the studio, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Andrew Tabler:

    My pleasure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's what Iran wants.

    What does the U.S. want right now?

  • Andrew Tabler:

    First and foremost, the U.S. to stop the assault.

    We have 3.5 million civilians inside of Idlib. And President Trump has been very up-front about that, that he wants to avert that humanitarian disaster.

    Behind that, however, the fact is, is that in Idlib province is the largest pocket of al-Qaida-affiliated fighters in the world. And an assault on that pocket could push not only civilians across the border into Turkey, but also these fighters as well. And they could go on to fight in Europe and throughout the world, and even — perhaps even in the Russian Federation.

    So the U.S. wants to stop this assault. Second, it wants to strengthen Turkey. The point for the agreement is very clear. They want HTS to be disarmed. They want…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Al-Qaida-linked HTS.

  • Andrew Tabler:

    The Al-Qaida-linked HTS to be disarmed.

    They want these groups to be separated by pro-Turkish groups that are in that area, particularly in Western Idlib, and then, at that point in time, negotiate and try to get these fighters away from the extremist groups for some further, perhaps future military operation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's a lot to pull off. Can Turkey do that?

  • Andrew Tabler:

    It would be very difficult.

    Turkey has had some luck in organizing these moderate — more moderate groups. But it has not happened fast enough. And the al-Qaida affiliates have held firm. Now, will they — will the supporters of these groups change their mind when they're faced with an imminent assault from — from Russia and from Iran and from the regime?

    Or could the United States step in? And, also, could there be pinpointed strikes in that area? Which the U.S. has carried out strikes in Idlib province in the past.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In response to chemical weapons attacks?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Andrew Tabler:

    Well, yes, correct. The most — most of the strikes inside of Syria have been for the reasons of chemical weapons attacks.

    And that's what we could see. If this goes along, and the United States has to get involved, there could be a couple of ways. One, if the chemical weapons red line is crossed, which is it's an established pattern of the Assad regime that they use chemical weapons in offensives.

    They — so the U.S. has drawn a red line on that. That definitely will be enforced if chemical weapons are used. And the president's been very clear.

    There's another avenue, though. The U.S. could end up striking against these — these extremist groups. And that, in and of itself, could drive a process in favor of Turkey.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, in the time we have left, humanitarian impact of an assault on Idlib?

  • Andrew Tabler:

    The impact would be massive, 3.5 million civilians.

    If they would perhaps go into neighboring Turkey, they could be overwhelmed. Turkey openly said that they did not have the capacity or the wherewithal to take care of them. And the real question is, where would they go? And the answer is probably northward towards Europe and a number of U.S. allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Andrew Tabler, thank you very much.

  • Andrew Tabler:

    My pleasure.

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