Moscow has allowed the Assad regime to attack Idlib despite a ceasefire as it prefers to back strongmen it can control, not revolutions.
Late last year, the Russian Federation laid the groundwork for the potential starvation of millions of people in Syria’s besieged northwestern Idlib province.
Along with China, it blocked a UN Security Council resolution that would have opened up three routes for the much-needed supply of food to be delivered to opposition-held areas.
Idlib, where an estimated 3 million people have taken shelter, has been relentlessly bombed by Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad in the last couple of weeks.
Moscow has given Assad’s forces a clean pass to do whatever it takes to crush the rebels. Since December, artillery and jets have bombed hospitals and shelters, killing 200 people in the past week alone.
What has added to the severity of the international entanglement is the Syrian regime’s attack on Turkey’s security forces on Monday morning in which five soldiers and one civilian contractor were killed.
The incident drew the immediate ire of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who asked Moscow to stand out of its way as Turkish forces retaliate. Turkey backs the opposition while Assad gets support from Russia.
Assad’s forces, which also have the support of Iranian militias, have pushed ahead with their offensive in recent weeks and in late January they reached the outskirts of Maaret al Numan, a strategic town where the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus passes through.
This happened despite a ceasefire reached between Turkey and Russia on January 12 that guaranteed a halt on attacks on Idlib.
Turkey has built 12 military observation posts around Idlib in what is known as a demilitarised zone. It was part of a peace deal that Russia and Turkey struck at Sochi in September 2018.
But the Syrian regime backed by Russian jets never really honoured the agreement and pounded civilian and militant positions in the food-starved province.
In December, almost 300,000 people fled to areas closer to the Turkish border to escape the destruction, according to the UN.
The Syrian regime has gained the upper hand in the 9-year-long conflict, especially after Moscow threw its weight behind Assad’s forces in 2015.
Rebels, including opposition fighters many of whom come from cities known for their animosity towards the Assad family, have fallen back to Idlib where they are making a last stand.
The bloody conflict in which around 500,000 people have been killed and in which everything from conventional mortar shells to barrel bombs and nerve gas has been used on civilian areas had also left millions homeless.
More than 3 million Syrians have taken shelter in Turkey, which says it has spent more than $40 billion on their welfare without much international support.
Now the spectre of regime forces driving millions more towards the Turkish border or into the areas held by Turkey in northeastern Syria.
Russia’s continued backing of Assad despite the civilian casualties has perplexed many in the region. That’s especially interesting since Moscow and Ankara recently opened up a section of multibillion-dollar transnational TurkStream gas pipeline.
Turkey has also bought Russian-made surface-to-air S-400 missile system, something that has damaged ties with the United States and other NATO allies.