Syria: Russian attack on Turkey’s ‘favorite militia’

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This post was published in Heise. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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BERLIN, (BM) – The Turkish government is silent on yesterday’s attack “on Syrian rebels”, who are being trained by the Turkish military, commented on October 27 the Turkish journalist Ragyb Soylu. Soylu is an interesting resource as he has good access to information from the Turkish government.

In fact, the English-language editions of the Turkish news agency Anadolu Agency, the government-affiliated Daily Sabah and Hurriyet Daily News are dominated by other topics: Erdogan versus Macron, Erdogan versus Wilders, Greece, Nagorno-Karabakh. The attack is likely to be a topic of conversation in the Turkish government.

It is a setback for the action in Syria.

Idlib: A major ally of Turkey

The training camp of the Islamist militia Faylaq ash-Sham in Idlib, Syria, near the border with Turkey, was hit. The number of victims varies; the figures vary roughly between over 40 and up to over 100 deaths. According to some reports, civilians were also hit.

There are still no precise reliable data, but there are many unconfirmed rumors: for example, that militia fighters should be sent to Azerbaijan for a mission. The big rumor about the air strike on the camp is that it will reveal the rift between Russia and Turkey.

Russian aircraft flew the attack, according to a report from Sputnik. It was directed against an important ally of Turkey in northern Syria. The central role of the Islamist, sometimes called jihadist militia Faylaq al-Sham [also spelled “Failak” or with “al” instead of the assimilated article “as (c) h”] in the Turkish occupation zones in northern Syria has already been highlighted at this point mentioned in several reports.

She played a significant role in the conquest of Idlib in 2015, where she was an ally of al-Nusra [which was then collectively known as Jaish al-Fatah] as well as Ahrar al-Sham. Later the militia was part of the Turkish allies who took part in the military operations “Euphrates Shield” [near Jarablus] and “Olivenzweig” [in Afrin]. It also has good connections to the Hayat Tahrir asch-Scham [HTS], the ruling militia in Idlib, which was formerly called the al-Nusra Front, whose leader al-Golani is also the head of the HTS.

For example, the Russian attack on the militia training camp – which is being trained by the Turkish military, which is why Turkish victims of the attack cannot be ruled out – also has a major impact on events in Syria. According to information from the Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin, who is also a usually well-informed author, the Russian attack was preceded by months of reinforcement of the Turkish military presence in Idlib.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey

Since Turkey and Russia reached an agreement on Idlib in March of this year, tensions developed. Especially since, according to Tastekin, there were signs that the Turkish secret service was trying to bring the HTS together with the militia alliances Syrian National Army and National Liberation Front under the umbrella of a military council. The two militia alliances are allies of Turkey.

It is an open secret that there is cooperation between Turkey and the al-Qaida descendant HTS. It is also obvious that the HTS is making propaganda efforts to appear as moderate as possible and has made more radical jihadist militias “harmless” in the process. Quite a few observers saw this as an activity in the spirit of Turkey, which is also securing its influence on Idlib via the HTS.

The HTS aims to establish itself as a negotiating partner that cannot be ignored when it comes to regulations on Idlib; Turkey is continuing its plan to establish a continuous “security zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border in order to push back the Kurds and to connect the Turkish occupation zones in Syria.

There was pressure from Russia on Turkey to dismantle observation posts in Idlib, said Tastekin, in order to make way for the Syrian army. Turkey followed suit, albeit probably “contre coeur”; Their policy in Idlib is geared, not least because of their allies, to keeping the presence of the Syrian army as small as possible. Kurdish media report that after the observation posts were withdrawn, there were Turkish attacks outside Idlib, on areas of Kurdish self-government, for example in Ain Issa.

Turkey’s protective shield over the militias allied with or cooperating with it also means that HTS militias and NLF militias have increased their military training in order to compensate for disadvantages against the Syrian army “in night fighting”. According to daily news information, Failak al-Scham is a member of the NLF alliance.

A stop signal …

It seems that yesterday the Russian air force in Syria gave a clear “stop signal” to the militia activities launched and supported by Turkey. “This is a big move because Faylak al-Sham is Turkey’s darling, a leading faction in the Syrian National Army and a participant in the Astana process as well as in the constituent committee. But this is how Moscow draws its red lines,” the assessment said the specialist at al-Monitor for Russia’s Middle East Policy, Maxim A. Suchkov, whose views on Russian policy in Syria are critical, but who is not part of the Russian Basher camp.

If one adds to these events in Syria that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was visiting Greece yesterday and emphasized Greece’s special role in Russian relations with the EU, one could, following the tenor of some reports, conclude that there is now more and drawing stronger fault lines between Russia and Turkey.

… and a break?

Some of the statements published on Lavrov’s visit to Athens would fit in with this. Mitsotaki’s assessment that Turkey is the troublemaker because it is being made during the visit reads almost as if it were supported by the consent of the Russian Foreign Minister.

The Syrian news agency Sana also quoted from the press conference on the visit that the “negative role of Turkey in Syria” was criticized. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is portrayed by the conference as saying that Turkey is the “destabilizing factor” in all regional developments.

However, the Sana report also states that, according to Lavrov, the Russian and Turkish positions on different issues are “not identical”, but he also stressed that Moscow is determined to continue working with Ankara to resolve conflicts and crises in the Mediterranean region to solve.

In Libya, Lavrov said, negotiations between Russia and Turkey are an important basis for bringing the conflicting parties closer together. Consultations between Moscow and Ankara are also said to have taken place in the conflict in Azerbaijan. As far as NATO is concerned, Turkish journalists recently emphasized that Turkey was completely on the side of the alliance in Georgia, for example, and there were also positions on Ukraine that transatlanticists liked. However, Erdogan is going his own way, as the test of the S-400 shows – he will not be forbidden.

According to the assessment of the critical observer of the blog Moon of Alabama, the Turkish claim to power finds its limits in overstretching. To protect his military and economy, a withdrawal from some of the current fronts is necessary.

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