Damage inside a Turkish observation post hit by Assad regime mortar fire in northwest Syria, June 13, 2019
A Russian-announced “ceasefire” dissolved within hours in northwest Syria on Thursday, amid ongoing Assad regime attacks on opposition territory and mortar fire on a Turkish observation post.
The Russian Center for “Reconciliation” said the halt in attacks, including of a Russian-regime offensive that began on May 6 in northwest Hama Province, would begin at midnight.
Moscow paused its airstrikes on northwest Hama and on civilian areas in neighboring Idlib Province; however, the regime did not pause with bombing and shelling of southern Idlib. White Helmets rescuers said seven civilians were killed and 14 wounded.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said three soldiers were slightly wounded in the “deliberate” firing of 35 mortar rounds on one of its 12 observation posts around Idlib and northern Hama, overseeing a demilitarized zone announced by Moscow and Ankara in September.
The Ministry said the mortars were launched from a regime-controlled area about 3 km (1.8 miles) away, partially damaging the observation post, equipment, and supplies. The wounded soldiers were treated and evacuated.
Before and after the shattering of the demilitarized zone with the May 6 offensive, regime forces have shelled Turkish posts on several occasions, slightly wounding personnel.
Appearing at a joint press conference later on Thursday with French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said it is not possible to say that the ceasefire is fully established in Idlib although efforts continue in cooperation with Russia.
Conflicting Accounts as Russia Covers for Assad
But Russia then provided cover for the regime, maintaining that the mortar attack was by anti-Assad forces. Moscow insisted that Turkey had asked Russia to launch airstrikes in response, supplying coordinates of rebel targets.
The Russian Defense Ministry said four successful strikes ensued.
But Turkish media close to the Erdoğan Government knocked back the Russian claims, headlining, “Assad Regime Disavows Moscow’s Ceasefire With Attack on Turkish Post”.
Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said, “We are discussing the issue with Russia. If the attacks continue, we will do whatever is necessary.”
After a Cabinet meeting, Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın also firmly stripped away Moscow’s cover for Assad:
Russia has been informed about the regime’s deliberate attempts to provoke Turkey and terminating the attacks in the region that are being conducted to gain more land. From now on, the necessary steps are being taken and are continuing.
Russia and Turkey, along with Iran, are “guarantors” of the Astana process which supposedly seeks a political outcome to the 99-month Syrian conflict. But while Moscow is an essential ally of the Assad regime, Turkey backs the rebel National Liberation Front, which is fighting alongside the hardline Islmaist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham to defend the opposition area.
Publicly Ankara had been limited in its criticism of the offensive and of Russian-regime attacks killing about 325 civilians and wounding hundreds in Idlib. However, reports indicate that Turkey has been supplying weapons to anti-Assad forces who have now counter-attacked in northwest Hama, including the regaining of territory last week.
There are an estimated 3 million people — about 20% of Syria’s remaining population — in northern Hama and Idlib. More than 300,000 have been displaced by pro-Assad attacks since September, defying the demilitarized zone.