Russia air strike in Idlib warning to Turkey on other international action, say experts

The two nations have found themselves at odds in a number of conflicts, including Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria

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An air strike this week on the headquarters of a Syrian opposition group that killed at least 78 fighters from Faylaq Al Sham was a stark message from Russia to Turkey, analysts say.

In what is potentially the largest single casualty strike in recent years of the Syrian conflict, on Monday Russian jets targeted the training camp of the Turkish backed proxy in the area of Jabal Al Dawila, northwest rebel-controlled Idlib.

A new batch of fighters were set to graduate from the camp in the coming days, though with at least 90 also wounded, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, a whole battalion may have been lost.

Faylaq Al Sham is part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and provides security personnel to more than 80 Turkish military posts in Idlib province.

It's a very serious blow to the future of the Constitutional Committee and [Syrian] political track

Strikes by Russia so close to the Turkish border are rare, and targeting Ankara’s most reliable military proxy, rather than a designated terrorist group like Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, has clear implications for an entirely separate conflict well away from the Middle East.

Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert for the Russian Council and Russia-Middle East Consultant, told The National that Monday's strike in Syria was a certain signal to Turkey over the conflict in the breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey has provided significant support for Azerbaijan in the most recent flare-up of violence with the ethnic Armenian region. Russia, however, hopes to prevent military interference in its backyard.

Turkey has already sent Syrian mercenaries to fight in support of its ally Azerbaijan and transferred weapons, but Ankara has also offered its own troop assistance.

“Moscow already openly expressed its concern and dissatisfaction with Turkey pushing for a pro-military solution for this problem,” Mr Khlebnikov explained.

Le Beck International senior regional security analyst, Nick Grinstead, said Russia is certainly “displeased” with Turkey’s deep involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh and Monday’s strike is a reminder Russia has a lot of pressure points that it can use against Turkey.

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

Syria's civil war, a decade of decay

Within hours of the Russian air strike, as bodies were still being recovered, Turkish-backed SNA fighters had fired retaliatory artillery at regime front-line positions – Moscow’s ally in the Syrian war.

The spokesman for the National Front for Liberation – a coalition of Syrian rebel groups now all under the one umbrella of the SNA and of which Faylaq Al Sham is a part – stated “heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy’s ranks,” though this is yet to be confirmed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke his silence over the strikes on Wednesday, condemning Moscow for its actions in northwest Syria, at the same time as criticising Russia's lack of action against Kurdish fighters in the northeast.

“Russia’s attack targeting the Syrian National Army forces training centre is a sign that a lasting peace and calm is not wanted in the region,” Mr Erdogan said.

UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen, who was in Damascus last week to discuss the Syrian Constitutional Committee, appealed to Russia and Turkey during a briefing to the UN Security Council on Tuesday to work on containing the situation.

“These dynamics can unravel the precious calm achieved through positive Russian-Turkish co-operation – co-operation which already faces challenges,” Mr Pedersen stated.

Considering Faylaq Al Sham is represented in the Constitutional Committee, which the UN endorses to prepare and draft a constitutional reform for Syria, Mr Khlebnikov said he doesn’t understand Russia’s move to target them.

“This attack undermines Russia as a broker,” Mr Khlebnikov said. “It’s a very serious blow to the future of the Constitutional Committee and political track.”

The move also raises the prospect of further violence.

Why has Syria's civil war come down to Idlib?

Why has Syria's civil war come down to Idlib?

Mr Grinstead believes Faylaq Al Sham and the SNA will be looking to Turkey for a response as their external protector and patron.

“They’re going to expect Turkey to respond in some way, otherwise they’re going to lose faith … it will create a lot of tension if Turkey doesn’t,” Mr Grinstead said.

But, given that Turkish soldiers were not among the killed and wounded, Mr Grinstead said it’s possible they will not see a need to directly respond in Idlib.

Equally, Mr Khlebnikov added it wouldn’t be rational for Russia to back a large-scale, Syrian government assault on the rebel-held region anytime soon as it still risks direct clashes with Turkish soldiers amassed in the province.

Even though the most recent ceasefire for Idlib province was brokered in March, violations from both sides of the conflict are a regular, if not daily, occurrence.

Moscow’s justification for its continued bombing campaign on behalf of the Assad regime is that Turkey has not upheld its part of the de-escalation agreement.

Originally laid out in September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed and end to the regime assaults on Idlib in exchange for a demilitarised buffer zone 25km deep within rebel-held territory, the establishment of joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the demilitarised zone and the withdrawing of medium to heavy weapons from groups in the zone.

Few of these conditions were met. Only the joint patrols were carried out along the strategic M4 highway after the renewed ceasefire this year, though were suspended at the end of August due to repeated attacks against the military convoys.

As part of the agreement, Turkey was required to remove Hayat Tahrir Al Sham from the buffer zone entirely, which is a near-impossible feat considering the powerful group operates independently from the SNA.

Turkey may also be reluctant to work hard enough to make the agreement work, considering it wanted similar action from Russia in northeast Syria to withdraw Kurdish-led YPG units from the border. As Mr Khlebnikov points out, Russia never came through with this.

Mr Erdogan even addressed this point on Wednesday, threatening a new military operation into Syria’s northeast if Russia doesn't uphold an October 2019 agreement that came as part of the ceasefire following Turkey's Operation Peace Spring to remove Kurdish elements from within 28km of its border.

“If all of the terrorists aren’t removed … as it has been promised to us, I repeat once again that we have a legitimate reason to intervene at any moment we feel the need to,” Mr Erdogan said.

“The Idlib issue doesn’t exist in a vacuum, [it is] very related to northeast Syria Kurds, and Russia [bargaining with] Turkey,” Mr Khlebnikov said, adding further dealings on Libya, and now Nagorno-Karabakh, add complications.

Mr Grinstead believes the ill-functioning ceasefire, or stalemate, will continue until one side “decides it’s no longer useful to have.”

“I think Russia is most likely to take that initiative and they will let the Syrian regime go in on the offensive if they don’t get the response they want from Turkey in Azerbaijan,” Mr Grinstead said.