Al-Bab airstrikes widen rift between Ankara and Kremlin

Special Al-Bab airstrikes widen rift between Ankara and Kremlin
Syrians gather at the scene of an airstrike in the city of Al-Bab in a rebel-held area in the north of Aleppo province late on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 17 July 2020

Al-Bab airstrikes widen rift between Ankara and Kremlin

Al-Bab airstrikes widen rift between Ankara and Kremlin
  • Civilian killed, many wounded in the Russian offensives on the northern Syrian city

ANKARA: The relationship between Turkey and Russia looks set to be further strained by Russian airstrikes conducted late Wednesday on civilian settlements in the city of Al-Bab in northern Syria, which was liberated from Daesh by Turkish troops and the Syrian National Army in February 2017.
The heavy bombardment — the first raid on Al-Bab since 2017 — resulted in the death of one civilian and left at least 10 more injured, including women and children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Experts suggest the strikes were intended as a warning to Turkey over its increased military presence in Libya.
Asaad Hanna, a former member of Syria’s White Helmets and now a fellow at Columbia University, said the strikes were also intended as a “clear message” from Russia to Turkish authorities that they should ensure this area of the Idlib countryside is cleared of jihadists as soon as possible.
Attacks by insurgents on Russian patrols in Idlib have increased recently, including a suicide attack on July 14 on the 21st Russia-Turkey joint patrol along the strategic M4 highway in northwestern Idlib, which injured three Russian soldiers and damaged a Russian armored vehicle. Russian warplanes reportedly retaliated with air strikes on jihadist locations in the Latakia countryside.
“I think Ankara will (initiate) some surgical operations,” Hanna told Arab News. “That could either be by allowing the Russians to start a military operation, or by pushing opposition fighters to attack some jihadist groups.”
In a September 2018 deal with Russia, Turkey pledged that it would deal with “radical terrorist groups” and reopen the M4 and M5 highways in Idlib. On March 5 this year, the two countries committed more specifically to “eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by the UN Security Council,” which includes Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the most powerful group in the region.
Since then, Russia has emphasized to Turkey that “extremists” and “terrorists” in Idlib must be neutralized.
Navvar Saban, a military analyst from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said Russia has been asking Turkey to secure the M4 highway and claimed that the Kremlin has concerns about the ongoing insecurity in this area. Civilian protests against Turkish and Russian joint patrols have been on the rise, with people sometimes throwing eggs and stones at the armored vehicles.
“(Russia) wanted to send a message to Ankara by hitting civilians in Al-Bab,” Saban told Arab News.
Talks between Turkey and Russia over a truce in Libya are still ongoing, and part of the message the Kremlin intended to send with its strike on Al-Bab, Saban suggested, was related to those talks, particularly the situation in the towns of Sirte and Al-Jufra and the presence of private military contractors from Russia.
“The Kremlin keeps using the Syrian conflict to serve its interests beyond Syria, (including) Libya,” said Saban. “Syria has turned into a kind of Post Office box and the Russians didn’t feel the need to hide their identities in this attack.”