Humanitarian catastrophe is looming with the fall of Idlib
After seven years of brutal war, all signs are pointing to a final showdown in Syria. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, buoyed by support from Russia and Iran, has systematically reclaimed the territories once in the hands of insurgents.
Now it is preparing an offensive against the last rebel enclave: Idlib, a rural province on the north-western border with Turkey.
Observers fear a humanitarian catastrophe. "There is a perfect storm coming up," said UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Roughly three million people live in Idlib, more than half of whom are Syrians displaced from other parts of the country.
The province became a hotbed of the Syrian opposition, including a number of Islamist militant factions. The most powerful is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group formerly affiliated with al-Qa'ida.
Idlib is also home to vast camps of displaced people and endemic poverty.
With Turkey leery of welcoming a new wave of refugees - the country already hosts more than three million Syrians - there are growing fears that civilians in Idlib may be cornered.
On Thursday, de Mistura urged the creation of a humanitarian corridor and suggested that civilians consider fleeing back to regime-controlled territory.
But such pleas echo the desperate appeals by the UN in the past, which went largely unheeded as the regime quashed resistance in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere.
Assad and his allies seem in no mood for compromise this time, either. The regime is talking up the "liberation" of Idlib from "terrorists".
Russia is equally unyielding. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the militants as "festering abscesses" that should be "liquidated".
The Russian navy will begin a major exercise in the Mediterranean today, probably in preparation for an offensive by Syrian government forces.
In Washington, the Trump administration seems more immediately preoccupied with the prospect of Islamist fighters scattering farther afield.
On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was in talks with Russian and Iranian counterparts to head off the crisis and maintain a ceasefire.
Erdogan's position has shifted markedly since earlier stages of the war, when Ankara loudly clamoured for Assad's overthrow.
Analysts say he made a losing bet in backing Assad's downfall and now is coming around to the scenario he sought to prevent.
"Moscow wants Ankara to reconcile with the Assad regime," wrote Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
"Turkey's reliance on Russia to protect itself from the [Kurdish separatists] and prevent a new surge of refugees may therefore force it into an accommodation with Damascus that it has successfully resisted until now."