Russia has accelerated its brutal bombing campaign and is working with Turkey’s Kurdish enemies to seize as much land as it can — before peace breaks out.
- By Roy GutmanRoy Gutman, formerly McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.
ISTANBUL — Secretary of State John Kerry’s agreement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, billed as an opening to the cessation of hostilities in Syria, turned out to be the starting shot for more intensive Russian bombing of cities and towns, hospitals, and schools in the north of the country. And Russia’s widening partnership with Syria’s Kurdish forces has also widened the likelihood the Turkish military will soon join the fighting.
The accord the secretary of state reached in Munich on Feb. 11 contains two big loopholes: A cessation of fighting wouldn’t take effect for an entire week, and Russia could continue bombing Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra indefinitely, even as it has long failed to distinguish between these radical groups and more moderate U.S.-sponsored brigades.
“They are all bandits and terrorists,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Time magazine, referring to the armed opposition in northern Syria. “So it is very difficult for us to tell the difference between the very moderate ones and the not-so-moderate ones, the good from the bad.”
The agreement does not include any sanctions for infractions — in fact, it includes no enforcement mechanism at all, just review panels. And if the past few days are any indication, there will be no shortage of violations.
On Monday, Russian or Syrian missiles targeted at least three hospitals, completely destroying one in the town of Maarat al-Numan, and damaging two others in Azaz, close to the border with Turkey. Also targeted Monday were two schools in northern Syria. At least 50 civilians died in these attacks alone.
“It was pancaked this morning,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Syria, of the hospital in Maarat al-Numan, which MSF funded, equipped, and supplied. “It was a deliberate attack. There were a number of strikes over an hour.”
Four air-to-ground missiles, fired in two salvos, struck the four-story hospital, according to Massimiliano Rebaudengo, the head of the MSF mission for Syria. Of the 25 staff, five were confirmed dead, three were pulled from the rubble alive, and two are still missing, he said. Five patients and a family caregiver also died in the attack.
The attack amounts to a clear violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which was passed in December and was referred to prominently in the Munich agreement. The resolution “demands that all parties immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardment.”
It appears that Moscow actually stepped up its barrage of missiles and cluster bombs targeting primarily rebel-held towns close to Aleppo and on their main supply route to Turkey. Russia has even coordinated its airstrikes with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which captured towns and villages held by anti-Assad rebels after an intensive bombing campaign. The formidable combination of Russian air power and Kurdish ground forces may have led to a deal on Tuesday in the strategic town of Marea, in which some rebel groups chose to join the Kurds rather than fight them.
“So far, on the ground, the announcement made in Munich did not translate into acts,” Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Foreign Policy Monday.
Derek O’Rourke, a security advisor with Goal, an Irish humanitarian relief agency that provides aid to over 1 million people in northern Syria, was more blunt. “It seems to be a massively hollow document that doesn’t have any weight behind it,” he said.
The accord also calls for the signers to “use their influence” to ensure immediate and sustained delivery of food and medical supplies to areas under starvation siege. But it’s up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to approve the deliveries in its own good time — a process that routinely takes a minimum of 72 hours, excluding weekends. And it names only seven of the scores of besieged locations that are to receive immediate aid.
But it seems that Assad’s focus is not on humanitarian access, but rather on clawing back the large parts of the country now out of his control.
“It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part [of Syria],” Assad told the AFP news agency in an interview published on Friday, admitting that “the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price.”
The pattern of Russian airstrikes suggests three principal battlefield aims: cutting off all cross-border traffic to and from Turkey, including resupply of rebel fighters and humanitarian aid; encircling Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city prior to the war; and facilitating the territorial gains of the Kurdish YPG across northern Syria.
The United States has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State extremists in northern Syria, overlooking its friendly relations with the Assad regime and the YPG’s acceptance of arms and battlefield support from Russia. But the militia’s alliances may be more fleeting than they appear, for it seems willing to dance with any partner that will advance its aim of carving out an autonomous region in Syria’s north.
In Tal Rifaat, a town of 30,000 that lies close to the main route from Turkey to Aleppo, Russian aircraft carried out an average 100 airstrikes a day this past weekend, emptying the town of its inhabitants and thousands of displaced, who fled to the Turkish border, according to humanitarian aid officials. The YPG captured the town on Monday.
In Haritan, a town just northwest of Aleppo whose inhabitants fled earlier this month, Russian aircraft dropped bombs containing cluster munitions — each containing dozens of bomblets — in a bid to kill rebel fighters who stayed behind to defend the town.
“They’re basically trying to destroy any number of towns,” said O’Rourke. “If people were to return to their hometowns, they would find a pile of rubble.”
Faced with a manpower shortage, the Assad regime is relying on the Kurdish YPG to seize key real estate from rebels on the main route to Turkey. Operating with friendly Arab militias as the Syrian Democratic Front, the YPG captured the Menagh air base from rebel forces last week, and then closed the road between Tal Rifaat and the border town of Azaz.
Turkey, concerned that the YPG was staking out new Syrian territory to join with its self-ruled territory further east, shelled the Kurdish militia Saturday for three days running and warned that it would not tolerate any further territorial gains by them.
What happens next is anything but clear. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that Turkey will not allow Azaz to fall to the YPG. He said if the militia moves again towards Azaz, “they will see the harshest reaction.” He also warned that “if Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organization, and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response.”
But even as he spoke, the YPG-led coalition with Arab fighters announced the capture of another village close to Azaz. Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz on Feb. 14 ruled out any unilateral deployment of ground troops to Syria, and other officials said Turkey will act only if the United States takes part — a highly unlikely scenario as it could lead to conflict with Russia.
“We will see,” a senior Turkish official said Tuesday, when asked how to square Davutoglu’s warning with Yilmaz’s rejection of a unilateral intervention. The official briefed foreign reporters in Istanbul under ground rules set by the Turkish government. “To say the truth, we will see what will happen in the days ahead and we will see what we will do.”
The U.S. government has criticized both Turkey for shelling the YPG and the Kurdish militia for seizing territory from U.S.-backed rebels. As the war in northern Syria escalates, it’s not clear which side Washington favors — or what, if anything, it is prepared to do to affect the ever-more chaotic situation on the ground.
Photo credit: GHAITH OMRAN/AFP/Getty Images