Russia conducted massive airstrikes in the northwest part of Idlib as the shaky ceasefire, which has been in place between the Assad regime, Russia, and the Turkish-backed rebels, appears to be falling apart.
The Russians hit a training camp of the Islamist group Faylaq al-Shamthe which is the largest of the Turkish-backed militias. The strike took place around Jabal al-Dawila in the Harem region northwest of Idlib city nearly nine km from the Turkish border.
The death toll was initially reported to be more than 50. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based watchdog on the Syrian civil war puts the latest death toll at 78. And with over 100 more wounded, many seriously, that number is expected to rise. The camp was due to graduate the latest group of fighters soon.
The targeted area also hosts refugee camps for people displaced by the fighting and a headquarters for the rebel Al-Sham Corps that is backed by Turkey. No casualties were suffered in these quarters.
Faylaq al-Sham is considered a moderate Islamist group. It was formed in 2014 from a collection of rebels fighting the Assad regime as part of the American-backed Free Syrian Army. Since the U.S. ended support for the rebels four years ago, the Turks have aligned many of the rebel factions under the guise of the National Liberation Front.
Many political and military analysts are considering this latest airstrike by Russia as a message to Turkey more so than an attack on the rebels. Russia and Turkey are supporting different sides in the Syrian conflict — although the ceasefire agreed to last March had the two sides conducting joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway.
Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads in a number of conflicts: Besides Syria, they also support different sides in Libya, and in the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They appear to be aggressively pushing for military and political influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Idlib is the last major province that is not under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Thanks in large part to heavy Russian airstrikes, the Syrian regime has gradually been able to take back all of the territories it had lost in the bloody civil war.
Idlib province was home to nearly three million people, yet nearly a million were displaced by the fighting after Assad’s forces launched a large offensive last year in an attempt to recapture the city.
Almost 200,000 people have returned to their homes in Idlib since the ceasefire was agreed.
Part of the issue in Idlib goes back to the initial agreement between Ankara and Moscow in 2017. Turkey had supported 11 Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias. However, a militia not under the Turkish umbrella was the large Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that controls much of the province. The Russians consider it a radical group.
In the 2017 agreement, Turkey was supposed to disarm and dissolve HTS. This has not been done either because Turkey couldn’t or wouldn’t in order to further its interest. Moscow has used this as a justification for its continued airstrikes in the region.
In response to Russia’s airstrike, Syrian rebels responded with the launch of hundreds of missiles and artillery shells targeting Syrian army positions.
The U..S has not completely disengaged from Idlib either. Last Thursday, it conducted a drone strike against an al-Qaeda affiliate in Idlib killing 17 jihadists and five civilians according to SOHR.
“U.S. forces conducted a strike against a group of Al-Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) senior leaders meeting near Idlib, Syria,” said Major Beth Riordan, the spokeswoman for United States Central Command (CENTCOM).
“The removal of these AQ-S leaders will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians,” Major Riordan said in a statement.