In an interview with the state-owned news outlet Sputnik, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Aleksei Erkhov blamed Turkey for escalating tensions between the two countries in northwest Syria.
The claim is misleading.
In recent months, Russia and Turkey have accused each other of violating an agreement they signed in 2018 on establishing de-escalation zones in the area. The agreement included an all-sides ceasefire, with Moscow ensuring that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces would stop advancing while Turkey secured the area from the remaining Islamic State fighters and reopened two strategic highways.
But tensions erupted after the Syrian government launched an offensive last April, disrupting the ceasefire and violating the treaty with Turkey.
After Syrian government forces killed 13 Turkish troops earlier this month, Turkey said it warned Russia of possible military action unless Assad’s forces withdrew from the strategic town of Idlib by the end of February.
The two sides held negotiations in Moscow on Feb. 17-18 but “could not reach a breakthrough,” according to Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. Turkey rejected Russia’s proposals, and the only agreement reached was to continue talking, Kalin said.
On Feb. 19, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara was “making final warnings” to the Assad government and its allies to withdraw from Idlib, and that an offensive against Syrian government troops was now “a matter of time.” The Kremlin said a direct military confrontation between Turkey and Assad would be a “worst-case scenario.”
Erkhov blamed Turkey, saying Russia and the Syrian regime were only acting in response to Ankara’s ceasefire violations. He implied that accusations that Russian and Assad had targeted civilians, bombing and shelling residential areas, were baseless.
Mark Lowcock, the U.N. under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, said in a Feb. 17 statement that “the crisis in north-west Syria has reached a horrifying new level.”
“The violence in northwest Syria is indiscriminate,” the statement read. “Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit. Schools are suspended, many health facilities have closed. There is a serious risk of disease outbreaks. Basic infrastructure is falling apart. We are now receiving reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries and further displacement.”
On Feb. 15, Mark Cutts, the U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, tweeted a video showing the aftermath of the bombing.
Cutts blamed Syria and its allies.
“Recent video from Ariha showing the devastation caused by airstrikes/shelling by Syrian Government forces & their allies. At least 1,700 civilians - mostly women & children - killed in NW Syria in the last 9 months. Stop the carnage!” Cutts said.
Russia has maintained military bases in Syria for decades, and launched the first in a series of airstrikes targeting the Syrian opposition in September 2015.
Despite this, the Kremlin’s official position was that no Russian troops were on the ground in Syria.Yet, in December 2017, President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria.
Moscow has consistently denied casualties among its military personnel in Syria. Still, media have reported the deaths of hundreds of Russian troops in fighting there, as well as casualties among private military contractors. Moscow has denied the involvement of private Russian military contractors in the Syrian conflict.
Last October, Russia’s defense ministry said it sent an additional 300 military policemen to Syria to patrol its borders.
This month, Russia’s foreign ministry said Russian military specialists died in Syria. Some media reported this as a “rare admission of casualties.”
Ambassador Erkhov blamed the deaths of Russian officers on Turkey, for failing to secure the area from Islamic State forces.
A group of Russian investigative journalists called the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) reported that it had identified the four dead Russian military specialists as officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB).