Air strikes target Turkish convoy in Syria

Updated August 20, 2019

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IDLIB: A convoy of Turkish military vehicles passes through the town of Saraqeb, in Syria’s north-western province of Idlib. —AFP
IDLIB: A convoy of Turkish military vehicles passes through the town of Saraqeb, in Syria’s north-western province of Idlib. —AFP

DAMASCUS: Air strikes targeted a Turkish army convoy inside a rebel-held part of northwestern Syria on Monday, killing three civilians and wounding 12 others, the Turkish Defence Ministry said.

Syria, however, said the Turkish convoy was carrying ammunition to rebels who have lost ground this month amid a government offensive to retake their last stronghold in the country.

The incident ratcheted up tensions in the region, a current ground zero in Syria’s long-running civil war in which Turkish, Russian, US and Iranian interests are fighting.

The Turkish Defence Ministry gave no word on Turkish casualties, saying the convoy was attacked while heading to one of Turkey’s observation posts in rebel-controlled Idlib province.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the convoy of armoured vehicles was delivering weapons to Khan Sheikhoun, a major rebel-held town that lies on the front line of fighting along the southern edge of the Idlib enclave. The town is a stronghold of Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful militant group in the area.

It was not immediately clear whether the air strikes were carried out by Syrian or Russian warplanes. The convoy consisted of several armoured vehicles and flatbed trucks carrying tanks.

The Turkish move into Idlib appears to be a message by Ankara that it won’t allow Syrian forces to capture Khan Sheikhoun. Syrian government forces reached its outskirts earlier on Monday. The town’s fall would also cut the highway linking Idlib to northern parts of Hama province, home to one of Turkey’s 12 observation posts on the edges of Idlib province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, and Idlib-based opposition activist Mazen al-Shami, reported that Syrian troops reached the M5 highway north of Khan Sheikhoun, making it more difficult for rebels and civilians to move between Idlib and rebels in northern parts of Hama province.

Under a deal reached last year between Russia and Turkey, the highway was supposed to be open by the end of 2018 but it never happened. Now, Syrian troops appear to be trying to open it by force.

The Turkish Defence Ministry’s brief statement did not provide details but “strongly condemned” the air strikes, adding that they were “against existing agreements as well as our cooperation and dialogue with Russian.” The strikes hit near the highway where the convoy was travelling, Syrian activists said.

Turkey backs the rebels who have been in control of the region since 2012, while Russia backs the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has vowed to take back Idlib.

Turkey’s private DHA news agency said Syrian government planes targeted the route of a Turkish military convoy carrying reinforcement vehicles and personnel. It said the convoy was heading toward two Turkish observation posts when it came under Syrian aircraft fire.

The report said the convoy could not proceed because the route between Maaret al Numan and Khan Sheikhoun was targeted, and sheltered at a safe location.The agency did not report any casualties.

The Britain-based Observ­atory said air strikes believed to be from Russian planes struck near the highway and forced the nearly 25-vehicle Turkish convoy to stop.

Al-Shami also said that warplanes struck areas near where the Turkish convoy was moving. The Sham Network, an activist collective, posted photos of the Turkish convoy.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2019