Northern Syria caught between Turkey’s hammer, Russian anvil

Recent days have seen Turkish, Russian and Syrian Assad regime attacks in the region, leaving damage and dead civilians in their wake.

Turkish and Russian soldiers wearing face masks are pictured during a joint patrol in the northern Idlib province, Syria, April 15, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish and Russian soldiers wearing face masks are pictured during a joint patrol in the northern Idlib province, Syria, April 15, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Northern Syria has seen a flare-up of violence in recent days. Regime forces bombed a hospital Sunday, killing at least six civilians. Fighting between Syrian opposition forces and Turkey and its proxies has intensified. Russia reportedly has bombed a location near
the Turkish-Syrian border. The escalation is possibly a last-minute scramble to secure gains before an expected American interference, an expert suggests.
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A hospital in the city of al-Atareb, located to the west of Aleppo, was shelled on Sunday by a regiment of the Russian-backed Assad regime. At least six civilians were killed, including a child and a medic. A statement by the International Rescue Committee, whose partner organization runs the hospital, said that the devastation caused by the attack has put the hospital out of commission.
A statement by the Syrian opposition organization The White Helmets called the attack on the hospital “a terrorist crime, and a new massacre.” The statement also said that “this crime is a continuation of the regime and Russia’s systematic policy of targeting
medical facilities and hospitals,” and demanded that the international community take action against the Assad regime.
Attacks by Russian forces in northern Syria also have been reported. Recent airstrikes carried out by Russian jets in the northern Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, have targeted a truck stop, a cement factory and a gas facility. Local teams were forced
to fight fires caused by the attacks.
The area also has seen intensified Turkish activity. On Saturday, Turkish jets attacked positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces in al-Raqqa province, the first such attack in 17 months, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Concomitantly, Turkish proxies increased their efforts in the province to advance against the opposition forces.
Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC and an expert on regional security in the Middle East, said that larger Russian and Turkish interests are at play in northern Syria, directing these recent events. “I think this
all looks a little bit like the Turks trying to use this moment – when there isn’t yet a real serious US strategy toward Syria under the Biden administration – to consolidate gains, to eliminate opposition and to solidify their position in the north of the country,” Berman told The Media Line.
Turkey currently controls large sections of territory in northern Syria, located on their shared border. The territories were captured in a series of military operations, the last of which occurred in 2019. When Turkey invaded Syria in 2019, following the US withdrawal from the region, Turkish President Recep Erdogan said that the operation was against “terrorists in northern Syria” from the pro-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers; Party (PKK) and People's Protection Units (YPG) militias and the Islamic State (ISIS), intended
to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
The Russians, in turn, “want to stay but they don’t want to pay,” according to Berman.
The expert says that as the conversation regarding Syria shifts toward reconstruction, it is in Moscow’s interest “to maneuver that conversation into the assumption that the Russians are there, they're providing the protective force. And that's their contribution,
they're not going to contribute more economically.”
Russia has gained much from its presence in Syria, which it used as “sort of the spring board to reenter” the Middle East, Berman said. To preserve its position, Moscow has to ensure that the Assad regime remains weak and dependable, and that it continues to
act as its protector. The recent Russian activity should be understood in this context, he said.
The two foreign actors, though, are unlikely to clash if the present situation perseveres and Turkey stays in the north. Both countries would like Assad to remain weak, allowing them to continue pursuing their own interests in Syria. With this in mind, the Russians
are “perfectly willing to have the Turks carve out an area of influence in the north of the country,” according to Berman.
Zvi Magen, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, also ties the attacks to larger regional power dynamics, but sees these events in the context of an ongoing conflict for the control of Syria, in which Turkey and
Russia are rivals. The recent escalation is “nothing new,” Magen told The Media Line, calling it an “ongoing conflict” that has “its lows and its peaks, from time to time.”
Lately, however, the fighting has reached “new record highs” because “the Turks are unwilling to cooperate,” he said.
Magen said that Turkey is hosting rebels that survived the Syrian civil war in territories it holds and, from there, they launch attacks outside the Turkish areas. Russia, for its part, is aiming to “create order,” meaning that the rebels and their Turkish protectors stand
in opposition to those efforts.
Magen also says that Russia is using Syria as a base of action in the region. “They are very active in the eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf, and Syria is a base for this,” he said. Russia’s attempts at reestablishing order in Syria are part of a larger
effort to become a powerhouse in the Middle East, he added.
Accordingly, the attacks are actually a part of a much larger conflict for regional superiority. “It’s a sort of competition between regional superpowers over regional influence,” Magen concludes.