While the Coronavirus is dominating the news, an ominous series of events is unfolding once again in Syria. A rocket attack killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded a third in Syria’s northwest Idlib province on Friday, the Turkish military said in a statement.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said that the rocket attack was carried out by “radical groups.” Turkey’s artillery units immediately retaliated by mounting, what the official statement characterized as, a powerful response — but the Defense Ministry didn’t elaborate further.
It was only two weeks ago that Russia, which supports the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey, which is supporting the rebels agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib. The Syrian army had mounted a large offensive to oust the rebels from their last stronghold in the country.
The conflict in Idlib has sent about a million more refugees streaming towards Turkey, which already houses about three and a half million from the nine-year-long civil war.
The Turks have sent a massive amount of troops streaming across the border to stem the conflict’s tide and to create a buffer zone along their border.
But soon their troops and those of the Syrians began to clash. More than 60 Turkish soldiers and hundreds of Syrian troops have been killed in the fighting between the two armies since early February.
The Russians have provided air support and conducted airstrikes on the rebel forces… with some of the strikes being rumored to have hit Turkish troops.
The ceasefire agreed upon between Russia and Turkey is important as it put, at least temporarily, a stop to the fighting which was close to raging out of control. Both sides agreed to conduct joint patrols along the vitally important M4 highway. But those were cut short as some resistance groups blocked the road to keep the Russian troops from patrolling in what the Russians characterized “rebel provocations.”
Now, the Syrians are massing again in the area, preparing to renew the offensive and to drive deeper into Idlib, shattering the fragile ceasefire. Local media reports have stated that the Syrian reinforcements from the neighboring Hama, Latakia, and Aleppo provinces were reportedly pouring into the eastern and southern countryside of Idlib, as the military geared up to renew its offensive. This would throw the already devastated region into a renewed wave of violence.
The Syrians are apparently waiting for the Russian approval to begin their assault, while Moscow and Ankara are trying to negotiate. The Syrians, with Russian backing, want the rebels to withdraw from the M4 highway. Thus far, the rebels have refused to budge.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier this week that an Islamist umbrella group known as Tahrir al-Sham was using the lull in the fighting during the ceasefire to regroup and re-arm with foreign support.
The Syrians want to push the rebels from the strategic towns of Ariha and Jisr Al-Shughour, two major rebel strongholds.
Jisr Al-Shughour is the main hub of the foreign-led Turkestan Islamic Party in Syria (TIP). TIP is considered a terrorist organization by Russia, Turkey, the United States, and the U.K. It’s also thought to be aligned with al-Qaeda.
Turkey was initially supportive of the Uyghurs, who make up a majority of the TIP. It had long harbored separatists advocating for the independence of the Uyghur-inhabited region of eastern Turkestan, which belongs to China. But as Turkey grew increasingly dependent on Chinese trade, its support for the Uyghurs and the TIP waned.
What transpires next will warrant close watching.
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