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PoliticsMiddle East

What's behind the latest Russian airstrikes in Syria?

July 2, 2023

Syrian civilians are paying the price for the ongoing power struggle between Moscow, Damascus and Ankara.

Smoke rises after an air strike on a vegetable market on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughur
Smoke filled the air after a strike on a vegetable market on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughur on June 25Image: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa/picture alliance

Each morning, Yasser H. and his brother sell what they harvest at the market in Jisr al-Shughur in the west of Syria's Idlib province. But on June 25, everything suddenly happened very quickly, the 39-year-old recalled.

"Here we are the vegetable market […] we were surprised today by the Russian bombing," he said. "The scene was very terrifying and cruel. Suddenly you see the wounded and martyrs on the ground, and there is no one to help or carry, the majority were injured and there was no one to help."

"We were civilians and farmers — nothing more, nothing less," he added.

Members of the White Helmets treat an injured person following the airstrike by Russian warplanes in Jisr al-Shughur
Members of the White Helmets treated the injured following an airstrike by Russian warplanes in Jisr al-ShughurImage: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa/picture alliance

Ahmed Jasigi, from the city's Civil Defense, also spoke to the AFP news agency of several deaths, condemning the attack on a market "that is an important source of income for farmers."

Haifa, 25, from Jisr al-Shughur, was also near the market that day, though able to take cover. "But our neighbor didn't make it. He is dead now, and he had just gotten married. We are all shocked and sad," she said.

Syrian airstrikes see highest death toll in 2023

At least nine people were killed and dozens injured in the Russian airstrike on the market in the rebel-held area, with the death toll expected to rise.

Four more people were killed in another attack in a suburb of Idlib, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Among them was an extremist militant, according to the report.

A third rocket attack reportedly killed eight other gunmen who were said to be members of the Hamza Brigade, a paramilitary group affiliated with the militant Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria's main insurgent group.

Even before the attack on the Hamza Brigade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had reported that these airstrikes had resulted in the highest death toll so far in 2023. Figures by the organization, which relies on a network of activists in Syria, are however often difficult to verify independently.

A map of northern Syria and surrounding areas

The Idlib province in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border, is the last region held by Syrian rebels and Islamists. It is mostly under the control of Islamist militias from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which grew out of the Nusra Front. Around 4 million people, most of them internally displaced several times over, live in poverty amid extremely difficult conditions.

After Wagner revolt, another Putin power play

The Syrian Armed Forces, "in cooperation with the friendly Russian forces delivered precise and qualitative air and missile strikes, targeting the fortified headquarters of terrorist organizations" in the Idlib region, the Syrian Defense Ministry said in a statement distributed by the state news agency SANA on June 28.

The operation was carried out "in response to the terrorists' repeated daily attacks on civilians in safe residential areas in Hama countryside," it added. There was no mention of the civilians killed in the market in Jisr al-Shughur.

Bente Scheller, Middle East analyst at Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Green Party affiliated think tank, also sees the airstrikes as a show of force by Russia, especially since Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was readmitted to the Arab League.

"There are plenty of autocrats who reinforce each other's belief that brute force is a proven way to get their way — Putin is underlining that with the increased attacks," Scheller said.

Smoke rises over the horizon after a Russian airstrike in Idlib on June 25
Smoke was seen over the horizon after a Russian airstrike in Idlib on June 25Image: Ä°zzeddin Kasim/AA/picture alliance

The conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group who recently staged a short-lived mutiny, may also have played a role.

"Since the Wagner private military company has shown Putin up and exposed that his strength isn't in great shape, the attacks in Idlib may also serve to reassure Putin himself," Scheller said.

'Russia wants Turkey to normalize its relations with Syria'

Yet another factor may have played a role as well: Syrian and Russian forces also staged attacks in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, in the buffer zone established by Russia and Turkey.

Turkey controls this area in the Turkish-Syrian border area. Not only has it deployed troops in northern Syria, but with the help of Syrian mercenaries, Ankara has also occupied several areas that it captured in violation of international law, using it to deport Syrian refugees there from Turkey.

Turkey has supported armed opposition to Assad throughout the war in Syria, much to the displeasure of Damascus, while Moscow has expressed impatience with Ankara for not doing enough to drive the jihadis out of the buffer zone. That is also making a rapprochement with Damascus less likely, according to a diplomatic source.

Syria's Assad welcomed back to Arab League

Moscow is now apparently ramping up the pressure. "Russia wants Turkey to normalize its relations with Syria because that would once again be a much greater signal to Europe and also NATO," said Scheller.

At the end of 2022, during the most recent Russian-brokered talks with Ankara, as well as at the recent Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan, Damascus demanded that Turkey completely withdraw its military presence from northern Syria. A statement by Turkey, Russia and Iran said the latest round of talks had been "constructive," and that they had discussed "preparing the road map for the restoration of relations between Turkey and Syria."

Turkey, Syria's interests collide

But the Turkish and Syrian leaders have different interests. "Turkey does not want to withdraw from Syria — quite the opposite," said Scheller, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hoping to create a larger security zone on Syrian soil. Additionally, Erdogan needs the territories he occupies to enable the repatriation of some 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

"Assad, on the other hand, wants to recapture every inch of Syrian soil," Scheller added. And while the Kurdish-Syrian Democratic Union Party is a thorn in Ankara's side, and Erdogan sees attacks on Kurdish territory in Syria as fighting terrorism, Assad sees the Democratic Union Party as a partner.

"For Assad, but also for Russia, as part of a rapprochement, it would be more important to act together against the Islamist HTS that controls Idlib, or other forces," said Scheller, referring to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which rules much of northwest Syria.

So far, the presence of Turkish troops has prevented Damascus and Moscow from using full military force to retake the rebel enclave around Idlib.

Back at the recently bombed market in Jisr al-Shughur, farmer Yasser H. said he just wants to live in peace, and not as a pawn of political interests. "But Russia does not distinguish between civilians and military," he said.

This article originally appeared in German.