Turkey shoots down unidentified drone near Syrian border
A Turkish jet has shot down a drone that entered its airspace from Syria, sharply raising the stakes along its volatile southern border where Russian jets are continuing to bomb Ankara’s allies in the anti-Assad opposition.
The drone was a similar size and shape to small surveillance craft used by Russia, and military sources in Beirut and the Turkish capital said it is likely that it belonged to the Russian military. But Moscow said all its jets and drones had returned safely to base.
Turkey had warned Moscow, after several incursions by fighter jets earlier this month, that it would not tolerate further entries into its airspace. Turkish officials appeared anxious, however, to avoid an escalation on Friday, emphasising that the aircraft was unmanned and refusing to publicly apportion blame.
The encounter underscored the febrile atmosphere along the Turkish-Syrian border, where Russia has emerged as a major player in the Syrian war over the past month, boosting the fortunes of Bashar al-Assad and, in doing so, weakening Turkey’s four-year campaign to oust the beleaguered Syrian leader.
Turkey’s entire 900km frontier with its southern neighbour is now deeply unstable, with Islamic State again ascendant north of Aleppo, Kurdish groups having used the chaos to advance their ambitions, and Russia having effectively established a no-fly zone above north-west Syria, where many of Ankara’s allies are based.
A full-throated entry into the war for northern Syria by Russia, Hezbollah and the Iranian military, the latter two of which had been active elsewhere in the country, appeared to herald a decisive push to take part of Idlib province and much of nearby Aleppo, the fall of which would be crushing to the opposition.
The intervention has also led to an increase in the amount of weapons – especially anti-tank missiles that had been highly effective against Syrian armour – being supplied by the opposition’s backers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US. The stepped-up weapons runs are transforming what had been a small-scale campaign into an open proxy war between regional powers on either side of the conflict – and between old cold war foes Russia and the US.
The Russian moves in particular have galvanised regime forces. Until September, the regime-held half of Aleppo appeared more likely to fall to the opposition and rebel groups had also been making steady gains in the western hinterland areas near the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia, from where much of Assad’s support stems.
“The situation is really bad right now,” said Ala’a Hamadi, a political officer from Division 1, an Aleppo-based rebel unit. “We are facing the regime, Isis, the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah.
“The regime is using the Russian card as it’s the last one left in their pocket. Russia understands that Assad won’t last for long if they don’t do something now.”
A second rebel leader, also based in the city, said: “The good thing about the Russians is that they have united us. The humanitarian situation is miserable in Aleppo. We are struggling to get food and medicine, and in the southern countryside there was a medical clinic that was attacked by the Russians.”
A doctor from the Jebel al-Zawiya area told the Guardian that three clinics had been hit by airstrikes since 2 October. “Two of them Bashar’s air force had been trying to hit for a year,” said Dr Ali Ahmed. “Now my colleagues have been killed by the invaders.”
Russia’s entry into the war appeared to be prompted by a warning from Iran that the regime heartland was more vulnerable than ever and the three weeks of attacks in the area have aimed to turn that around.
Russian airstrikes, backed by ground forces led by Syria’s allies and its own army, attempted earlier on Friday to open a new front in northern Homs district, which seems tailored to support the looming battle to retake the opposition-held east of Aleppo.
The latest offensive comes on the heels of attacks across the frontlines in Latakia in the north and the strategic al-Ghab plain in the province of Hama. There were reports of Iranian troops taking prominent positions in both areas, as well as in Idlib and the southern approaches to Aleppo.
The attacks have all been backed by dozens of Russian air force sorties. Moscow has billed its entry into the war as a bid to topple Isis. Military observers around the region, however, say the vast majority of its attacks have been directed at non-ideological opposition units, some of them US backed.
After meeting Russian leaders last week, Saudi officials this week issued a joint statement with Turkey warning Moscow that it had made a mistake by entering the war. In a bid to placate Turkey, Russia has said it will not assist Kurdish forces in their fight against Isis. Many senior Turkish officials view the Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, the PKK, and their allies in Syria as a bigger threat to their national interests than Isis.
Turkey has blamed Isis for the most deadly terror attack in the history of its modern state – a strike on a peace rally in Ankara on 10 October, which killed more than 100 protesters, many of them aligned to the Kurdish political opposition.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a network with wide contacts inside Syria, said at least 60 people, including 30 children, had died in the airstrikes in northern Homs.