MOSCOW  -  Russia on Wednesday called on the West not to stand in the way of an “anti-terror operation” in Syria’s Idlib, as speculation grows Damascus is planning a Russian-backed offensive on the rebel-held province.

“I hope our Western partners will not give in to (rebel) provocations and will not obstruct an anti-terror operation” in Idlib, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir in Moscow.

Lavrov also said that there is “full political understanding” between Russia and Turkey, who support opposing sides of the Syrian civil war but are currently in intense negotiations to ensure Idlib does not become a breaking point in their alliance. “It is necessary to disassociate the so-called moderate opposition from terrorists and at the same time prepare an operation against them while minimising risks for the civilian population,” Lavrov said.

“This abscess needs to be liquidated.”

Lavrov went on to accuse the West of “actively heating up” the idea of a “so-called planned chemical attack by the (Syrian) government.”

Over the last week, Moscow has accused Syrian rebels of planning to stage a chemical attack in the northwestern province that would “provoke” Western strikes on its ally Damascus.

It also accused British secret services of being “actively involved” in the plot.

Moscow’s accusations came after US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said Washington will respond “very strongly” if Syrian regime forces used chemical weapons to retake Idlib.

This week Russian media reported Moscow is reinforcing its military presence in the Mediterranean near Syria.

In April, the US, France and Britain launched joint missile strikes on Syrian targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma that left scores of people dead.

Russian stuck by its ally Syria and angrily insisted the Douma attack was staged by the White Helmets volunteer rescue service. Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, launched a military intervention in 2015 to support the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a move that changed the course of the war.

Damascus still holds the southeastern tip of Idlib, a strategically important province adjacent to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad’s clan.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

UN fears 800,000 could

be displaced in Idlib

An expected government assault on Syria’s last rebel-held province, Idlib, and surrounding areas could displace as many as 800,000 people already in a dire humanitarian situation, the UN warned Wednesday.

In an interview with AFP, a representative of the United Nations Humanitarian Coordination Office (OCHA) in Damascus said an attack could be catastrophic. “We fear that - should there be an increased escalation of hostilities in that area - up to 800,000 people could be displaced and that the number of people who are in need of humanitarian assistance, which is already high, could increase dramatically,” said Linda Tom.

Idlib in northwest Syria along the border with Turkey is the last province still held by the country’s beleaguered rebels.

An estimated three million people live in Idlib and adjacent rebel-held territory, many of them already displaced from other parts of Syria since the conflict erupted in 2011. Most rely heavily on food, medicine and other humanitarian aid brought in across the Turkish border by the UN and charity groups.

Tom said she feared that assistance “will be compromised” by clashes, further threatening civilians in the densely-populated territory.

“For aid workers who are working in this area, they might become displaced as well and that would compromise the delivery of services to people in need,” she said. “It’s just the immense scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that could take place in the Idlib area,” she added.

President Bashar al-Assad is looking to recapture Idlib to cap a string of major regime victories in recent months, including around Damascus and the south, that have put him in control of around two-thirds of the country. Those offensives have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes across Syria, where a total of six million remain internally displaced. On Tuesday in New York, several UN Security Council ambassadors voiced deep concern over the fate of civilians in Idlib. Swedish envoy Carl Skau said an assault “would have catastrophic consequences and can lead to a humanitarian disaster”.

Experts have said Syrian troops could instead opt for a more limited operation on the province’s periphery, where hundreds of thousands live.