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The Turkish-backed militants in Greater Idlib, and in northeastern Syria in general are being given no quarter.
On March 21st, the Russian troops enforcing the ceasefire regime in Idlib carried out a rare strike – they launched what seemed to be a 9K720 Iskander missile and hit an unspecified target near the village of Salwah. The ballistic missile reportedly targeted the headquarters of the al-Sham Corps, one of the largest Turkish-backed factions.
Shortly thereafter, Su-35 and Su-34 warplanes of the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out a series of airstrikes on the town of Saramada in northern Idlib that is located near the border with Turkey. They targeted a gas factory owned by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). A shipping office, owned by the terrorist group, was also targeted by Russian airstrikes. Dozens of trucks were damaged or destroyed. The town of Bsanqul in southern Idlib was also subject to an air raid.
The Russian strikes were almost certainly in response to a violation of the ceasefire agreement – a rocket attack was launched from Idlib and struck Aleppo city. Two civilians were killed and many others were injured. Property damage was also reported.
The Russian operation was one of the most severe since the ceasefire agreement was implemented. It is likely an attempt to deter the Turkish-backed factions, as well as HTS from carrying out any more expansive operations.
Still, Turkey is unlikely to give up on its interests, and on remaining in northeastern Syria. It has occupied parts of the Aleppo countryside, and almost the entirety of Afrin for more than three years.
The Turkish-backed factions are there to smuggle oil and gas, which is being provided by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since, under Damascus’ pressure and as a result the Syrian Arab Army’s attacks that tap was shut off, Turkey and the factions it backs are left to fend for their own interests. As a result, on March 21st, the SDF clashed with militants near Hasaka, and several of its members were injured. One civilian was killed in the fire exchange between the two factions.
The Turkish factions also need their ranks refilled, and are now carrying out “mandatory recruitment” in Ras al-Ayn and its outskirts.
This is a clear signal that despite the significant efforts by the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian support, Ankara is nowhere near giving up on pursuing its goals, and is willing to go to great lengths to achieve them.