Syrian rebels accuse Russia of hand in Idlib attack

Analysts dispute Jaysh Al Izza claim, arguing Moscow has no interest in sabotaging ceasefire

TOPSHOT - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in Sochi on September 17, 2018.  The leaders of the two countries that are on opposite sides of the conflict but key global allies will discuss the situation in Idlib at Putin's residence in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. / AFP / SPUTNIK / Alexander Zemlianichenko
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A Syrian rebel group has accused Russia of supporting a deadly attack led by Iran-backed fighters last week, in breach of the ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow and Turkey in September.

“The operation was jointly undertaken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the militias it supports along with Hezbollah fighters under Russian supervision, planning and leadership," said Mahmoud Al Mahmoud, spokesperson for Jaysh Al Izza, the rebel group which attacked.

Twenty Jaysh Al Izza fighters died during the fighting, as well as six members of the Iran-backed militias, Capt Al Mahmoud told The National. It was the deadliest attack in months in the region and took place on the night of November 8 in the village of Zilaqiat, which lies north-west of Hama by the Orontes river.

“Roughly 40 fighters surprised us by using very modern gear, all Russian-made: thermal weapons which can detect bodies in the dark, silencers, and laser-guided snipers. We were blinded by the darkness and thick fog," he said, adding that Jaysh Al Izza recaptured the village an hour after the fighting.

In retaliation, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an alliance led by Syria's former Al Qaeda branch which is the dominant force in Idlib, led an attack against the Syrian army which killed 8 soldiers.

The escalation in tensions has endangered the survival of the truce brokered in Sochi by Turkey and Russia which averted a full-scale attack by the Syrian government on Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the country. Rebels and the government have accused each other of violating the deal.

Capt Al Mahmoud said Russia was playing a double game. “Russia might want the survival of the Sochi deal, but at the same time, it wants to force [rebel] factions to react to abuses operated by Russia under the table. Then Turkey will be accused of being unable to control the factions, which can be used as a pretext for Russian intervention in Idlib.”

Until it diverted all its support to the National Liberation Front, a rebel coalition in Idlib, two months ago, Turkey supported Jaysh Al Izza, said Capt Al Mahmoud. His fighters also used to receive US aid, which was halted when Donald Trump was elected president.

Even though they agree that Iranian-backed militias were involved, analysts dispute Jaysh Al Izza’s claim that Russia supervised the November 8 attack and instead point the finger at Iran.

Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Centre, argues that the Iranian-backed militias planned the operation without approval from Russia, which is intent on making the ceasefire work.

Russia does not have the ability to reign in these militias which rule the regime-controlled areas close to the demilitarised zone around Idlib and are responsible for over half of the shelling on opposition-held areas, he says.

“With these kinds of incidents, Iran shows off how important its role is on the ground and that it has to be included in any future agreement."

“At best, the Russians turned a blind eye," said an anonymous military analyst who closely monitors events in Syria on Twitter under the user name @QalaatAlMudiq. “There is a rebel tendency to accuse Russia for everything because Russia is the only power, unlike Iran, that changed the course of the war."