Turkey’s intervention on behalf of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict had deeply upset Russian leader Putin, who until yesterday chose to be a spectator to Azeri victories. It now seems Putin has entered the action to stop the Turko-Azeri alliance. Azeri President Haydar Aliyev confirmed the presence of Turkish F-16 jet fighters on his territory, which according to news reports had been moved around after intelligence of a potential Armenian strike. Putin expressed his displeasure with Erdogan by bombing Turkish proxies in Idlib, causing 78 casualties.
Air strikes by Damascus regime ally Russia killed 78 Turkey-backed rebels in northwestern Syria on Monday, a monitor said, in the bloodiest surge in violence since a truce almost eight months ago.
More than 90 others were wounded when Russian warplanes targeted a training camp of the Faylaq al-Sham faction in the Jabal Duwayli area in Idlib province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In early March, a truce brokered between Moscow and Ankara stemmed a Russia-backed regime military offensive on the country’s last major rebel stronghold in Idlib.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman described Monday’s strikes near the Turkish border as the “deadliest since the ceasefire came into force”.
He also said they were the bloodiest Russian air raids against rebels in a single day since Moscow’s military intervention in Syria in 2015.
In Idlib city, an AFP reporter saw dozens attend the funeral of some of the fighters, heads bowed and hands clasped in front of coffins in a neat line.
The National Liberation Front, an umbrella group of Ankara-backed rebels based in Idlib that includes Faylaq al-Sham, told AFP that Monday’s Russian strikes hit one of its positions and caused casualties.
The group in a statement announced the death of a “large number” of its fighters, and said it would not hesitate to retaliate.
‘Message to Turkey’-
NLF spokesman Sayf Raad denounced the “Russian aircraft and regime forces continuously violating the Turkish-Russian deal in targeting military positions, villages and towns”.
The March truce has largely held, despite some intermittent bombardment in the area from both sides.
Russian air strikes have from time to time targeted military positions, including those of Turkey-backed groups, Abdel Rahman said.
Analysts saw Monday’s raids as a warning to Ankara over Turkey sending its Syrian proxies to fight in the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya.
Some Faylaq al-Sham combatants have individually gone to fight on the Azeri side in the Caucasus, while the faction has sent more fighters to battle in Libya on the side of the UN-recognised government, the Observatory says.
Nicholas Heras, of the Institute for the Study of War, said the raid was a message to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia’s President Vladimir “Putin is telling Erdogan that he has the ability to strike Erdogan’s favoured Syrian rebel proxies at will inside Syria, if Turkey does not de-escalate its military activities against Russian interests in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he told AFP.
Samuel Ramani, a researcher at Oxford University, said that Turkey’s current preoccupation with Nagorno-Karabakh meant “it might not retaliate immediately.”
“But the risk of a major escalation” between Russia and Turkey “remains high, as both sides fundamentally disagree on the region’s future.”
Erdogan has also defied US, EU
The retaliation by Putin raises the stakes for Turkey’s president Erdogan, who has also started fights with Macron as well as defying US by urging it to impose CAATSA sanctions as soon as possible. The CAATSA sanctions, if they were to be legislated would be a punishment for Turkey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia, which has now become a “frenemy”.
Erdogan’s foreign affairs strategy is becoming more blurred by the day, if one exists. Turkish goods are being boycotted in Arab nations, as France and Germany are very likely to take measures to chastise Erdogan for renewed comments about the Continent’s “fascist, Nazi” past.
Turkish pundits claim Erdogan’s true objective is to boost his sagging approval ratings at home by picking up clashes with the West and donning the mantle of the great Leader of Sunni Islam.
Such a strategy, if indeed it exits, could have generated political returns. However Erdogan’s outbursts have triggered a run on the currency, as Covid-19 rages across the nation, increasing disgruntlement with the regime.
Besieged at home by economic woes and a health crisis and abroad by too many enemies, Erdogan’s actions smack of desperation and a lack of cohesion among his strategy team.
The question going forward is not whether Erdogan could emerge victorious in his many battles abroad, but whether the Turkish voters and economy can shoulder the burden of his outbursts.
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