Is Russia attacking Syria’s Idlib to distract Turkey from Azerbaijan?
Russia and Turkey face each other on opposing sides over several fronts across Eurasia, from Libya to Syria, and now Azerbaijan, too. Experts say Moscow is hitting Syria's Idlib to gain leverage against Ankara.
A Russian aircraft, which symbolises civilian deaths in the Syrian war, appeared in the skies of the country’s last opposition stronghold, Idlib, on Monday, hitting a training camp and killing dozens of Turkey-backed opposition forces.
Although media outlets have reported 30 deaths from the Russian airstrikes, TRT World‘s sources in Moscow say at least 50 members of the Syrian National Army were killed in the assault.
The bloody incident indicated Russia has renewed its hostility towards the opposition enclave, which hosts nearly four million people, all determined not to live under Russian-backed Bashar al Assad regime.
Analysts say the recent Russian bombing and the Baku-Yerevan conflict in the Armenian occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region are connected, especially since Turkey backs Azerbaijan. The dynamic once again puts Ankara and Moscow on a collision path since Armenia has been close allies with Moscow for a long time.
Much to the dismay of Russians, Azerbaijan’s successful Karabakh operation has led Baku to reclaim Yerevan-occupied territories step by step, thanks to the technologically-advanced Turkish drones.
“It’s very probable that the Russians want to give a message to Turkey,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst, referring to the recent bombing in Idlib.
Yalinkilicli thinks that Russia has been resentful of Turkish support to Azerbaijan.
Despite its declared neutrality, Moscow backed Yerevan against Baku, helping invading forces of Armenia take over the Karabakh autonomous region in the 1990s, despite it being a part of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.
“It’s a remarkable development that this attack happens as multi-sided talks on Syrian constitution (backed by Turkey, Iran and Russia) continue and Moscow was just sharing information yesterday regarding a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in northern Syria,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World.
In March, the Assad regime began launching another brutal campaign against the Idlib province, bringing Ankara, which controls parts of northern Syria, to stop terrorist groups such as Daesh and the PKK/YPG across its border, and Damascus to the brink of a possible war.
But eventually, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to hold a ceasefire across the Idlib province to prevent a humanitarian disaster and a possible huge refugee flow to the Turkish border as a result of the Assad regime’s military campaign.
While Turkey and Russia have both political and economic cooperation in various areas, the two countries have serious disagreements with each other on several conflicts happening from Libya to Syria and Caucasia, backing opposing sides.
“The disagreement in the Syrian conflict has a potential to poison the whole relationship between Turkey and Russia. But a positive development in Syria could also help repair other disputes between the two countries,” Yalinkilicli says.
Reportedly, Turkey has recently withdrawn from several observatory posts in Idlib, whose territories were taken over by Assad regime forces under the Russian assistance in the March campaign.
Despite the Turkish pullout, Ankara shows no sign that it could leave the region to the mercy of both Russians and the Assad regime, consolidating in other areas.
Yalinkilicli notes that if threatened, Turkey would respond strongly in northern Syria to both Russians and the Assad regime.
France-Russia axis versus Turkey
While Paris and Moscow have appeared to be at loggerheads over many issues, the two countries have been on the same page with each other in several conflicts from the Libyan civil war to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.
Both countries have backed the illegal forces in Libya, where they support a warlord, Khalifa Haftar, against the UN-recognised Tripoli government, and the Karabakh region, where both countries have appeared to align with occupying Armenian forces.
In both conflicts, Turkey supports UN-based legitimate aspirations of the respective Libyan and Azerbaijani governments against occupying forces.
In Syria, a former colony of France, President Emmanuel Macron has not displayed a definite sign of his support towards the brutal Assad regime as much as Russia has done.
But Macron has indicated in 2017 that France sees no priority for Assad’s departure from power anymore, saying that “Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor.”
In a worrying sign, Macron has recently increased its anti-Muslim rhetoric in a move to please the country’s growing far-right movements with strict secularist language. Both Haftar and Assad have been known for their strict version of autocratic secularism.
Macron’s move towards the far-right resembles the Russian policy under President Vladimir Putin, who appears to develop strong ties with European far-right movements.
Experts have seen strong connections between Russia, France and far-right movements.