Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has said that armed groups must be “cleaned out” of Syria‘s northwestern province of Idlib, according to Iranian media.
Zarif made the remarks on Monday while visiting Syria’s capital, Damascus, where he arrived for talks with Syrian government officials.
The top Iranian diplomat was scheduled to hold meetings with President Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Imad Khamis on bilateral relations and the latest developments in Syria’s long-running war.
“All of Syrian territory must be preserved and all the sects and groups should start the round of reconstruction as one collective and the displaced should return to their families,” Zarif was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.
“And the remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people,” Zarif added.
Zarif’s visit comes after Amar Hatami, Iran’s defence minister, travelled to Damascus and signed an agreement for defence cooperation with his Syrian counterpart Ali Abdullah Ayoub. Hatami also met Assad during his trip.
Iranian forces have backed Assad in the country’s seven-year-old civil war by providing steady political, financial and military support.
Syrian government forces, also backed militarily by Russia, have threatened an all-out offensive on Idlib, controlled by various rebel groups.
The United Nations has warned that an offensive on the province is likely to result in a “civilian bloodbath“.
Capturing Idlib would put the vast majority of the country under Assad’s control.
The main rebel group in the area is Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
HTS currently controls about 60 percent of the province. Russia has cited their presence in Idlib as the reason for previous attacks, despite Idlib’s inclusion in the so-called “de-escalation zones” aimed at shoring up ceasefires.
The group has been left out of ceasefire resolutions and de-escalation attempts in the past, and in 2016, was designated a “terrorist group” by Russia.
Other factions in the area include groups under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
Zarif visited Turkey last week and met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a staunch supporter of Syria’s rebel forces against Assad.
Russia and Iran – which support Assad – and Turkey have been in close cooperation over Syria in order to find a solution to the conflict, particularly via the Astana diplomatic track.
The Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents are scheduled to meet in Tehran to discuss the latest developments in Syria later in September.
Separately, Iran’s military attache to Damascus told Iranian media on Tuesday that the country’s military advisers would remain in Syria under a defence agreement signed this week.
“The continued presence of Iran’s advisers in Syria is one of the areas covered in the defensive-technical agreement between Tehran and Damascus,” said Brigadier-General Abolghasem Alinejad, according to the Fars and Tabnak news agencies.
Since Russia military intervened on Assad’s behalf in 2015, the Syrian government has regained much of the territory lost to fighters in the early years of the war.
Syria’s war has left more than 350,000 people dead and displaced millions since it broke out with the brutal repression of an initially peaceful uprising in 2011.