Western powers are calling on Russia to rein in its ally Syria and prevent another potential "humanitarian crisis" from breaking out in the latest arena of the country's seven-year civil war.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump shared concerns about developments in Syria in a phone call on August 27, especially the humanitarian situation in the Idlib region on the border with Turkey, their offices said,
Russia has given President Bashar al-Assad crucial support throughout the war in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions since it began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
Russia helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor when it launched a campaign of air strikes on his opponents and stepped up its military presence on the ground in Syria in 2015.
Rebel forces have been routed in many parts of the country. Syrian pro-government forces are preparing to launch what appears to be a major offensive to try to regain control over the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold.
Both Trump and Merkel "called for international action to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib Province," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
"Russia is called upon to act in a moderating manner on the Syrian government and prevent a further escalation," Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said.
Concerns Over Idlib
Before discussing the matter with Trump, Merkel raised concerns about the situation in Idlib during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin just over a week ago, Seibert said.
The United States, France, and Britain last week issued a warning to Syria not to use chemical weapons as government forces ready their assault on Idlib.
French President Emmanuel Macron separately on August 27 called on Russia to rein in Assad, who denies using chemical weapons despite several instances documented by the UN and whom Russia has shielded from UN retribution over the chemical incidents for years.
"The situation is alarming because the regime is threatening to create another humanitarian crisis in Idlib province, and until now has shown no desire to negotiate the slightest political transition," Macron said.
"This means reinforcing pressure on the regime and its allies, and I expect Russia and Turkey to take account of their roles and the commitments they have made," he said.
After regaining control of most of Syria's major urban areas in the last year as well as Syria's southern borders with Jordan and Israel, Assad has set his sights on recapturing Idlib, where thousands of rebels and their families were transported under safe-passage arrangements brokered by Russia when they surrendered in other parts of the country.
Assad's forces started hitting the province with air strikes and shelling this month in what appears to be a prelude to a full-scale government offensive.
Bloomberg News reported last week that U.S. intelligence agencies believe they have evidence that Assad is planning a chemical attack, which if it occurs would fall into a pattern of Assad allegedly using such weapons to both terrorize his rebel opponents and prompt civilians to flee the area under siege.
Bloomberg said the indications of a planned chemical attack prompted White House National Security Adviser John Bolton to warn his Russian counterpart Nikolai Petrushev in a meeting last week that any such assault would draw a strong response from the United States going beyond the targeted air strikes Washington has ordered twice in the past year in retaliation for alleged chemical attacks.
Russia Claims 'Provocation'
As Western leaders have increasingly made public their concerns about a possible chemical attack in Idlib, Russia in recent days has countered with charges that rebels controlling Idlib province are the ones that are preparing to use chemical weapons.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov over the weekend accused the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham of "preparing another provocation" with the delivery of eight tanks of chlorine which he claimed would be used in a chlorine gas attack that the rebels would then blame on the government.
Konashenkov claimed that the planned "provocation" would "serve as another reason for the U.S., the U.K., and France to hit Syrian government targets with air strikes."
Russia on August 27 accused the United States of positioning warships and cruise missiles around the Mediterranean in preparation for a massive attack on Syria -- charges that the Pentagon denied.
Russia and Syria have repeatedly blamed past chemical attacks that have killed dozens of civilians in Syria on rebel groups, in several cases despite evidence that the chemicals were delivered by aerial bombs that the rebels do not have in their arsenals.
A Pentagon spokesman on August 27 called the latest Russian accusations "lies" and "propaganda," and a Syrian war monitor agreed.
"These are mere allegations and lies aimed at preparing the ground for the battle for [retaking] Idlib," Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the dpa news agency.
He added that "the chlorine shipments about which Russia is talking are sent periodically for water plants to sterilize water in Idlib."