The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced the killing of “several Russian and Turkish military specialists” in the Idlid de-escalation zone last month. In a statement released Feb. 6, the ministry details Russian grievances over what it calls “dangerous escalations and a surge of violence in Idlib.” The ministry said terrorists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group had hijacked the de-escalation zone and intensified the attacks in December and January. Moscow said that over the two last weeks, Russian, Syrian and Turkish military forces were targeted about 1,000 times while Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria has been constantly repelling drone attacks.
Why it matters: In the last few weeks, political pressure on Russia has been augmented by both Turkey and the United States. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported that Washington has pointed out the disastrous humanitarian implications of the latest Russia-backed Syrian army assaults in Idlib. So has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — for whom the stakes are high as a new refugee crisis that would directly affect his country looms on the horizon.
“[American] statements on solidarity with Turkey [over Idlib] is top-level cynicism: Earlier the White House sanctioned and condemned Turkey over its 'Peace Spring' operation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement following US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks in support of Ankara.
By coming clean about the loss of its own people — a rare admission of casualties and painful news for Russia's domestic constituency — Moscow has gone on the counteroffensive. It is defending the logic of Russia's actions in Idlib, and seeks to affirm Moscow's moral high ground by framing the debate on the Idlib offensive as a “just war” on terrorists. Those who oppose it, this logic suggests, support Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is hiding behind the civil population.
Rising toll: The Foreign Ministry didn’t specify the number of the Russian military personnel killed, nor did it reveal the circumstances of the incident. It only noted it took place in mid-January; this would have been after President Vladmir Putin’s Jan. 8 visit to Istanbul and an updated Idlib deal with Erdogan.
Three days ago, Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based newspaper traditionally critical of the Kremlin, reported the deaths of four Federal Security Service officers in Syria. Only one death was confirmed by the authorities. It is not clear whether these were the officers the Foreign Ministry referred to in its announcement. The newspaper report suggested the officers arrived in Syria to provide security at a high-level meeting of Turkish and Syrian officials.
What’s next? Russia seems determined to finish the Idlib issue once and for all — preferrably through a new deal with Turkey, or reluctantly through continued support for military assaults by the Syrian army. It sees the arguments on the humanitarian crisis as fairly hypocritical and thus is in no way is willing to cave under US pressure.
The Foreign Ministry minced no words when replying to the US criticism of Moscow’s actions. “When the US and their allies presumably fought against terrorists in the notheast of Syria and literally leveled to the ground entire cities such as Raqqa, Hajin and Baghouz, no one spoke about a national cease-fire or truce. Having failed to defeat the Islamic State and finding any other good pretext for its unlawful presence in Syria, the Americans are shamelessly looting Syria by trading its natural resources,” the ministry said.
The ministry added, “The Americans themselves struck Idlib on a few occasions under the pretext of fighting terrorists, including the elimination of [Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The question is then: Who does Washington think controls Idlib — terrorists or the moderate opposition led by al-Qaeda warlords?”