ANKARA: A Russian airstrike on a rebel training camp in the Syrian province of Idlib is Moscow’s “warning shot” to Turkey over its support for extremism, political analysts say.
The airstrike on Monday — one of the deadliest in nine years of conflict in Syria — killed almost 80 Turkish-backed militia fighters in the Faylaq Al-Sham rebel camp, near Syria’s border with Turkey.
In the wake of the attack debate raged about the message Moscow wanted to send Ankara by targeting Turkey’s major proxy in the war-torn country.
The attack is considered as a serious breach of Moscow’s cease-fire agreement with Ankara.
Idlib is the focus of a growing dispute between Turkey and Russia, with the former supporting the rebel forces, while Moscow backs the Assad government’s offensive to retake the province.
The rebels, ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, have helped Turkish forces secure observation points in contested zones. Militia fighters also make up the largest armed group backed by Ankara.
Observers say the airstrike will lead to an escalation in tensions between Russia and Turkey.
The two countries have already halted joint patrols along Idlib’s key M4 highway despite Turkey’s decision to test-fire its controversial Russian S-400 air defense system, ignoring warnings from Washington.
Meanwhile, Turkey has stepped up reinforcements at military posts along the M4 to strengthen its foothold in the region.
According to Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, Russia is increasingly concerned that Turkey might ramp up support for rebel groups and organizations that Moscow views as extremists.
The latest Russian airstrike shows Moscow is willing to push Turkey on its support for extremism, he told Arab News.
However, Orwa Ajjoub, affiliated researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden, said the airstrike on the Turkish-backed rebels should be seen as part of a wider conflict between the two nations.
“Ankara and Moscow have failed three times to maintain a permanent cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the two actors are supporting the opposing states of Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively,” he told Arab News.
“In Libya, the UN-brokered ‘permanent cease-fire’ between Gen. Khalifa Hafter’s forces supported by Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the government of National Accord supported by Turkey and Qatar, was also met with suspicion and unease since both Ankara and Moscow will have to withdraw their mercenaries from the country before securing a decisive win,” Ajjoub said.
Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is yet to make any statement on the Russian attack.
During a visit to Athens on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented on the two countries’ relationship, saying: “We have good relations with Turkey, but it is not without problems.”
However, Ajjoub believes Russia is hoping to “reshuffle the cards” in Syria in an attempt to pressure Turkey’s stances on both Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya.
“Russia’s decision to carry out an attack on Ankara’s primary proxy is designed to change the status quo in Idlib,” he said.
Since the March 5 cease-fire between Turkey and Russia, Idlib has enjoyed relative calm interrupted by attacks mainly by the Syrian regime.
The attacks are aimed at “redrawing the map of northwest Syria,” Ajjoub added.
“Turkey, which has already shown some flexibility by withdrawing its forces from the Morek military post, does not seem interested in offering more concessions to Russia.
“By carrying out such a significant attack on Faylaq Al-Sham’s headquarters, Russia is reminding Turkey that achieving relative success in a multi-front conflict, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya, can be undermined in Syria, where Moscow’s military might is undisputed.”
Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, spoke with Lavrov by telephone on Tuesday, with Russian airstrikes topping the Turkish agenda.