Fighters from the National Liberation Force, a coalition of Syrian rebels supported by Turkey, appear to have attacked Russian Special Forces stationed Syria’s Hama province. This is more than just the latest in the closing battles of the civil war in northwest Syria. The attack has broader implications for relations between Russia, Turkey and the United States.
Details remain scarce. But three sources have confirmed on the messaging service Telegram that the attack did, in fact, happen; that it took place on May 25 (though the story only made it to English-language news on May 31); and that the NLF – not some other rebel group – was responsible. In a May 27 post, Nors for Studies, an Arab-language research group, said an attack on Russian Special Forces had occurred. The Russian-language Conflict Intelligence Team said the attack had happened 7.5 kilometers (4.6 miles) from where Russian Special Forces are known to be operating, citing geolocation analysis published on social media that confirmed the nearby position of a Russian mortar team And the NLF itself claimed responsibility for the attack. Perhaps the one piece of corroborating information missing are any photos of the attack.
The attack comes as the Syrian army, with Russian air support, conducts a limited offensive in Syria’s northwest provinces. What’s notable about the NLF attack is that it targeted neither Syrian forces nor Russian-backed proxies but Russian forces themselves. The attack could mean a couple of things. It could be that Turkey, which has so far been largely effective in muzzling the NLF, is beginning to lose control of its Syrian proxies, and that one NLF contingent took action of its own. (This particular incident may represent only a small group that split off from the broader NLF organization.) It’s also possible that Turkey sanctioned the attacks, or at least didn’t stop them, in attempt to pressure Russia to force Damascus to back off from its offensive.
Though it’s difficult to tell which of these explanations is most likely, either would have consequences that extend far beyond Syria. If Turkey is losing control of some of its proxy groups in northwest Syria, it will be more difficult for Russia and Turkey to work together toward a resolution to the recent flare-ups. (The two signed a cease-fire last summer that resulted in a de-escalation zone and temporarily put to rest speculation about an impending Syrian offensive). Turkey has a number of interests in Idlib and Hama provinces, but perhaps the most immediate is preventing the mass influx of refugees over the border into Turkey that could result from a large-scale ground offensive. Turkey’s leverage with Russia is in maintaining its position as a power broker in the province. That’s something it has already struggled with; part of its deal with Russia was to quash the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a commitment Turkey failed to meet.
However, most signs right now point to Russia and Turkey working closely together to establish another sort of cease-fire. The Russian news agency TASS reported on May 31 that the two were close to reaching some form of an agreement, and there have been a number of reports over the last week of Turkey busily resupplying its proxies in the northwest in order to repel Assad’s offensive. It’s hard to imagine that Turkey would be losing influence over any such groups if it’s increasing its arms supplies to them.
At the same time, Turkey is just weeks away from receiving Russian S-400 systems, an issue which, to Russia’s glee, has torn at the U.S.-Turkish relationship and even prompted the U.S. to bar Turkey’s receipt of F-35s, U.S. fighter jets that Turkey has been actively involved in developing since the jet’s inception. Ankara must know that allowing attacks on Russian service members would be a surefire way to scuttle the delivery of a weapons system that Turkey has risked its relationship with the U.S. to attain. Unless, of course, Turkey believes it has a dependable backup plan. U.S.-Turkish dialogue over alternatives to the S-400s has been ongoing (they even agreed to form a “study group” to try to work through the issue more formally), so it’s possible the two have reached some kind of an agreement that would free Turkey to more forcefully counter Russian ground forces. This would mean more bad news for Russia – beyond attacks on its ground forces – which had hoped that weakened U.S.-Turkish relations would hurt Turkey’s position in NATO.
If Turkey is willing to allow Russian forces to be attacked, then it might be willing to take bigger risks to defend its position in northwest Syria and ensure that a large-scale offensive doesn’t happen. For now, it seems as though Russia is still willing to negotiate on northwest Syria, which means it isn’t in a rush to push Turkey too firmly back into Washington’s camp.
Whatever the case may be, the attack is a reminder that, despite optimistic coverage of Turkey’s improving relationship with Russia, the two still have conflicting interests, including in Syria. Even if the two can cooperate on energy and weapons systems, they remain locked in a proxy war in northwest Syria. There’s a reason these two have gone to war countless times since the rise of the Russian Empire, and elements that led to that centurieslong competition are still relevant today.