Turkish Kurds look towards the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from the top of a hill close to the border line between Turkey and Syria near Mursitpinar bordergate. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia said that "terrorists" fired rockets at their airbase in northern Syria on Wednesday. It appeared to be the second round of rocket attacks, the first involving 17 rockets and the second involving four. Russian media reported the incidents.
Russia's RT said that "Nusra terrorists on Wednesday fired 17 missiles at Russian Khmeimim airbase in Syria." In another case on May 22, Russia's Defense Ministry said that "Syrian government troops had repelled three attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group involving 500 militants."
Earlier on the morning of May 22, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that Syrian government troops had repelled three attacks by the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group, involving up to 500 militants. Nusra is also known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and it was previously also al-Qaeda in Syria. In September, Russia and Turkey signed a deal to prevent a Syrian regime offensive into Idlib province, where HTS is located. Turkey, which controls Idlib, was supposed to keep HTS away from the front line behind a buffer zone.
However, it appears that HTS is seeking to provoke the Syrian regime and Russia into a larger attack with the hopes that Russia and Turkey might end up in a conflict. This is a complex and dangerous game. Turkey has announced numerous times recently that it is acquiring the S-400 air defense system from Russia. Most recently, Turkish personnel were supposed to begin training. At the same time, the US is seeking to keep Turkey as an ally through various threats and rewards, but angry that Ankara is buying the S-400 from Russia. There are hints that US President Donald Trump will speak with Turkey's president soon. Idlib rebel groups and extremists would like to spoil the Turkey-Russia deal. It's not clear what they think of the Turkey-US relationship.
The US also does not want a conflict in Idlib, not wanting more refugees pouring into Turkey. The US is also concerned about the Syrian regime using chemical weapons.
HTS has targeted the Russian base in the past with drones, but the rocket fire appears to be escalating. Russian media may also be playing this up to send a message to Turkey that it needs to rein in the rebels and stop the rockets. In that case, Russia is also making it clear that the Idlib tensions need to be reduced. It is incumbent on Turkey to do more to prevent the groups in Idlib from targeting Russian forces. However, Russia also has a key role to play to prevent the Syrian regime from its recent attacks on Idlib. The Syrian regime's agenda is also to prevent Turkey from entrenching itself forever in northern Syria. With Russia-Turkey ties increasing over the S-400 deal and energy deals, both Ankara and Moscow do not want war in Syria. But their allies on the ground, the Syrian rebels and the Syrian regime, as well as extremist groups such as HTS, have different agendas.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.