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Syrian forces are closing in on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib, raising concerns that millions of civilians could be caught in the crossfire.

James Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria, said Thursday, "there's lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared". Jeffrey added that the attack would be a "reckless escalation."Pro-government forces backed by Russia and Iran have been shelling the rebel enclave for two straight days. Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting in Tehran Friday to discuss what could happen in the next few weeks. Russia has called Idlib a "nest of terrorists" and a "festering abscess."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he's concerned about a bloodbath in Idilb, which could send a stream of refugees into Turkey.

"If we can ensure a ceasefire here, this will be one of the most important steps of the summit, it will seriously put civilians at ease," Erdogan said. "We need to find a rational solution in Idlib that will address everyone's concerns."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the terrorist fighters that have taken shelter in that region haven't been part of peace talks. He added that Syria should retake all of its territory.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government is legitimate and should be respected.

"To fight terrorism in Idlib is inevitable and part of a mission to bring about peace and stability to Syria," Rouhani said. "We are fighting for peace. Our final goal whether in Syria or in the region is peace but in order to have sustainable peace we have to fight terror decisively."

Politically, Jeffrey said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad "has no future as a ruler" but it's not up to U.S. forces to remove him.

Amnesty International warns that the residents of Idlib, many of them already refugees from elsewhere in Syria, cannot bear another offensive using starvation and indiscriminate bombardment.

"The shocking civilian death tolls and war crimes witnessed recently in other parts of Syrian such as eastern Aleppo city, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa must not be repeated in Idlib," Samah Hadid, Middle East director of Amnesty International, said. "It is essential that all parties to the conflict do not attack civilians, grant safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the fighting and attacks, and ensure unimpeded access to humanitarian relief for all civilians in need in Idlib."

One recent air strike targeted rebel forces, but human rights organizations claim 13 civilians, including children were killed in the attack. There were no militants killed, the organization claims.

Elsewhere, Russia has warned that it will attack At Tanf, a key U.S. stronghold near the border of Syria, Jordan and Iraq, to root out militant troops in the area.

U.S. officials have said they will defend themselves if attacked.

"We have absolutely advised them to stay out of At Tanf," one U.S. official told CNN. "We are postured to respond."

|UPI NEWS

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