Long War Against Turkish-Backed Terror Groups: Russia Launches a Week of Air Strikes on Arms Depots and Drone Bases

The Russian Air Force has over the past week conducted multiple strikes against jihadist militant groups supported by the Turkish government in northeastern Syria’s Idlib governate, following renewed attacks by these forces on Syrian population centres and military positions. On November 1 deputy chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit reported: “The Russian Aerospace Force delivered air strikes on sites of illegal armed formations involved in shelling the positions of the Syrian government forces. A militant strongpoint and an underground shelter were hit in the areas of the settlements of Kansafra and Ein Shib in the Idlib province.” That day also saw two underground bases and a storage facility for drone parts struck, killing an estimated ten militants. The strikes was launched after a Syrian serviceman had been injured during an earlier militant shelling targeting Syrian Army positions in the Abbad district. 

On November 3 the Russian Defence Ministry reported that members of the formerly Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra front, a terror group heavily reliant on Turkish state support for its operations, had been planning attacks on civilian infrastructure in government controlled areas of the Hama and Aleppo governates. Admiral Kulit reported: “Information, received by the Russian reconciliation centre from Syrian intelligence sources, suggests that the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group, active in the Idlib de-escalation zone, is preparing to attack civilian infrastructure facilities in government-controlled areas of Hama and Aleppo,” with the attack to involve “makeshift unmanned aerial vehicles and modified long-range multiple-launch rocket systems.” He stressed that Russia and Syria would take pre-emptive action against the jihadists. It was subsequently confirmed that the Russian Air Force had delivered strikes on underground military facilities in Idlib in response to attacks by the Al Nusra Front and the Turkestan Islamic Party – the latter a terror group from Western China that has for over a decade received extensive Turkish state backing. 

On November 5 the Russian Air Force launched a further attack on terror groups based in Idlib, striking a depot used for storing drones near the settlement of Chiflik-Shogur. The following day Russian air strikes further targeted a munitions depot and two underground shelters. Terrorist groups have made extensive use of drones obtained through Turkey in the past for attacks on both Syrian targets and on Russian military facilities in Syria, with Russia’s Khmeimim Airbase which hosts key strategic assets aimed at NATO’s vulnerable southern flank having been a priority target for the terrorist militias. Turkey has notably sought to strengthen the defences of terror groups controlling Idlib on multiple occasion, include embedding Turkish officers within their ranks, providing man portable air defence systems and associated training, and from late 2021 providing American-built MIM-23 Hawk air defence systems which are expected to be manned by Turkish personnel. Turkish special forces have been embedded in the units of multiple terror groups since 2011 when jihadist militants began an insurgency against the Syrian state, with Russian air strikes against UN-recognised terror groups in Idlib in 2020 having notably caused dozens of deaths among Turkish military personnel revealing how deeply embedded they were within the jihadist groups. 

Russian Defence Ministry warnings regarding the likelihood of escalated attacks by jihadist groups in Idlib emerged from mid-October, with the escalation of tensions between Israel and Syria over hostilities in the Gaza Strip making it increasingly imperative for Turkey to divert Syrian attentions away from its Israeli front through its proxies on the ground. Syrian-led efforts in previous years to expel terrorist groups from Idlib were respond to with massive Turkish military intentions including provision of air and artillery support to target Syrian forces within their own borders and provide cover to terrorist groups. U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett H. McGurk previously highlighted that “Idlib Province is the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” with jihadist militant forces based there numbering in the tens of thousands. Turkish state intervention has been key to sustaining this status quo as Ankara continues to hold the forceful overthrow of the Syrian government, and imposition of an allied Islamist replacement, as a policy objective.