DAMASCUS, Syria – Iran's foreign minister said at the start of a visit to Damascus on Monday that "terrorists must be purged" from Syria's Idlib and the entire northwestern province returned to government control.
Mohammad Javad Zarif's comments in Damascus were reported by the semi-official Fars news agency and came as Syrian forces and their allies are preparing for an assault on Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in the country.
"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.
He met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who is just back from a visit to Moscow, and was to meet later with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The visit comes days before the leaders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia are expected to meet in Iran to discuss the situation in Idlib.
Zarif said it was necessary to consult "with our Syrian friends" ahead of the Sept. 7 summit, according to Fars.
Iran has lent crucial military and economic support to Assad throughout the seven-year civil war and the discussions are expected to focus on the looming battle for Idlib.
Assad has vowed to defeat the opposition in its last refuge in the northwestern province if the rebels do not surrender to government rule.
Idlib and the surrounding area is home to some 3 million people — nearly half of them already displaced more than once by the civil war. Tens of thousands of people have fled to Idlib after surrendering in the face of government offensives elsewhere, choosing to relocate to an opposition-held area rather than risk reprisals or forced conscription at the hands of the government.
U.N. officials believe an offensive on Idlib would trigger a wave of displacement that could uproot an estimated 800,000 people and discourage refugees from returning home.
Thousands of government troops and allied fighters have been massing in areas surrounding the province.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed.