Although the tenuous ceasefire continues to hold in Syria’s Idlib province, the joint patrols that have been conducted by Russian and Turkish troops have been halted, due to militant attacks. 

The two sides had agreed back in March to conduct joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway. The agreement ended weeks of increased tension in which the two sides were close to coming in direct conflict.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that attacks by “radicals” have caused the halt in the joint patrols. This may prove to be a dangerous precedent. 

“Terrorists have stepped up the amount of shelling on government troops and nearby settlements, not ceasing their provocations in the ‘security corridor’ along the M4 highway. Thus, the joint patrols have been suspended,” she stated during a Thursday news conference.

Zakharova added that different factions in Idlib were attacking Hmeimim’s base in the Latakia countryside with drones, adding that these attacks “are extremely troubling.”

She said that “achieving permanent stability in the de-escalation zone in Idlib is not possible unless terrorists are neutralized.”

Russian-Turkish patrol attacked on M4 highway in Syria

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The ceasefire deal reached by Ankara and Moscow on March 5 created a corridor on either side of the M4 highway which connects Syria’s east and west. The corridor stretches six km to the north and to the south of the M4. Although the two sides conducted 24 joint patrols since mid-March, they faced problems right from the start.

Opposition groups that are hostile to the Russian presence in Idlib, had immediately begun sit-ins, blocking the M4 with protests. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed group that had been linked to both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, had publicly stated that it would disrupt the patrols. The Russians had said, that the mere presence of HTS in Idlib was the reason they were attacking in the first place. The United States and others have branded the HTS as a terrorist organization.

The joint patrols had been coming under increasing attacks. Although the last patrol conducted this past week covering the area from Saraqib, east of Idlib, to Ain Al-Hour, north of Latakia, was conducted with no issues, there have been some dangerous clashes on the highway. 

In June, a roadside explosive lightly damaged several vehicles during the 17th joint patrol. On June 18, Russian and Turkish forces were attacked, however, no casualties were reported. On July 14th, the joint patrol of Russian and Turkish troops was hit by an enormous roadside bomb; three Russian soldiers and several Turkish troops were injured in that blast. 

HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani has been seen publicly in Idlib. He has been portraying himself increasingly as a government leader and statesman. Some regional analysts believe that Golani would not be making these public appearances and portraying himself as a governor of the province unless he had the backing of Turkey.

The Turkish government wants the ceasefire to hold. According to different reports, it is estimated that more than 200,000 people, who were displaced by the fighting in Idlib, have returned to their homes. The fighting in Idlib had displaced nearly one million people.

However, the U.K.-based watchdog for the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), reported that a large convoy of Turkish armored vehicles and logistical resupplies entered Idlib from Turkey. 

This could have been because of last week’s Russian airstrikes and Syrian artillery shelling of opposition forces in a frontline town near the strategic Jabal al-Akrad mountain range, in Latakia province. 

But by publicly discontinuing the joint patrols due to opposition attacks, a message is sent to the terrorist groups in the region that they can force the Russians from the region by continually harassing them. This will invite further attacks. It is a similar issue that American-led coalition troops are facing in Iraq with the Iranian proxy militias.