Idlib fighting sparks war crimes accusations, Russian-Turkish tensions

The fighting is the most serious setback for Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria and laid bare Ankara’s inability to convince Moscow to take a different path in the crisis.
Sunday 09/06/2019
In the crosshairs. Members of the Syrian Civil Defence carry a wounded man on a stretcher following a reported air strike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib, June 3. (AFP)
In the crosshairs. Members of the Syrian Civil Defence carry a wounded man on a stretcher following a reported air strike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib, June 3. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Escalating fighting in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib is pushing hundreds of thousands of people towards the Turkish border, placing the alliance between Ankara and Moscow under heavy strain.

Turkey finds itself in a weak position because its plan to buy a Russian missile defence system has angered the United States, its main Western ally. If Ankara yields to US pressure and cancels the Russian deal, Moscow could intensify fighting in Idlib, possibly sending a new wave of refugees into Turkey, analysts said.

Idlib, the last rebel bastion in Syria after more than eight years of war, has seen fierce fighting since late April. Clashes on the edge of the jihadist-controlled region killed 44 Syrian government loyalists and 39 jihadists and Islamists from May 30-June 7, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Aid groups accuse Syrian and Russian military of using location data of hospitals provided by the United Nations to attack the facilities to drive civilians away.

Last year, the United Nations shared coordinates of 235 protected sites in Idlib, including schools and hospitals, with Russia, Turkey and the US-led coalition to protect them in case of a military assault but aid groups say the information that was meant to shield civilian institutions is being used to target them.

“When you give the coordinates of hospitals, they become targets,” Mohannad Othman, CEO of the Al-Sham Foundation, an NGO active in Syria, said by telephone.

Organisations, including the White Helmet civil defence units, medical groups and child protection groups, said in a statement May 31 that there had been more than 24 attacks on health facilities, six attacks on civil defence centres, 29 attacks on schools and other civilian infrastructure in the past month. The statement said those attacks resulted in the death of more than 250 people.

Attacking hospitals is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva did not respond to requests for comment.

Syria and Russia said the offensive in Idlib, most of which is ruled by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), became necessary because extremists in the province launched attacks from the region. They say a pledge by Turkey to rein in HTS under a ceasefire deal with Moscow last September failed to stop the attacks.

“Of course, strikes by militants from Idlib are unacceptable and measures are being taken to neutralise these strike positions,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, rejecting an appeal by US President Donald Trump to stop the assault.

The aid groups said the offensive, which includes heavy bombardments of villages and towns in Idlib, triggered unprecedented suffering for civilians.

“Over 307,000 people have been displaced in the past two months with the majority in the past four weeks only,” their statement said. They added that more than 200,000 people had to live in the open and that refugee centres at the Turkish border with Idlib were overcrowded. “This is the single largest mass displacement in Syria since the beginning of the crisis” in 2011, they said.

The development is raising concern in Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, regarding the possible massive wave of refugees from Idlib. The fighting is the most serious setback for Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria and laid bare Ankara’s inability to convince Moscow to take a different path in the crisis.

The Turkish-Russian alliance appears “to be in serious trouble and at risk of falling apart in any future Assad-Russia offensive,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said by e-mail.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 30 that he wanted a ceasefire in Idlib to prevent more civilian casualties and a refugee influx to Turkey but the Kremlin said it was Turkey’s responsibility to stop rebels from firing on civilian and Russian targets, signalling it backs the Syrian government offensive despite Ankara’s protests.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian-Turkish relations, said Turkey lacked leverage. “The Sochi agreement (last September) has turned into a new effective blackmailing tool for Moscow to ensure Turkey’s positioning with Russia in [the] Syrian crisis,” Has wrote via e-mail.

The United States warned repeatedly that it would issue sanctions against NATO partner Turkey if the Erdogan government purchases the Russian S-400 air defence system. The first S-400 missiles could be delivered to Turkey within weeks. Washington and Turkey’s other Western NATO allies say the Russian system is incompatible with NATO’s defence network and poses a threat to US F-35 fighter jets, which Turkey also plans to buy.

Erdogan said he remained committed to the deal with Russia, making a clash between Turkey and the United States more likely.

Has pointed out that Turkey is squeezed between Moscow and Washington.

“If Ankara changes its mind on purchasing [the] S-400s, it is highly likely that the first Russian response to such a decision will be speeding up the Idlib operation,” Has wrote.

“To avoid a new refugee flow and prevent a humanitarian crisis Ankara may try to reach a new compromise with Moscow to create a kind of a buffer zone in northern Idlib for civilians,” he added. “However, it will again be a tentative and fragile agreement, not a real solution to the terrorist and jihadist threat in the region.”

10