Russia kills 78 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in air strikes, threatening truce

Russian air strikes killed 78 Turkey-backed rebels in northwestern Syria on Monday, an opposition war monitor reported on Monday, marking a possible end to a ceasefire that went into force nearly eight months ago.

Russian warplanes targeted a training camp of Faylaq al-Sham, one of the most powerful factions among Syrian opposition groups, in the Jabal al-Dawila area of the Harem region, which is located in Syrian’s northwestern Idlib province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A group of fighters were expected to graduate from the camp within days of the attack, which also wounded 90 people, the war monitor said.

Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman described the strikes near the Turkish border as the "deadliest since the ceasefire came into force". He also said the Russian air raids were the bloodiest against rebels in a single day since Moscow's military intervention in Syria in 2015.

The National Liberation Front (NLF), an umbrella group of Turkey-backed rebels based in Idlib that includes Faylaq al-Sham, told Agence France Presse that the Russian strikes hit one of its positions and caused casualties.

The group said in a statement that a "large number" of its fighters died and that it would not hesitate to retaliate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brokered a ceasefire agreement on March 5 to end the fighting in Idlib between Turkish-allied armed groups and the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia.

The deal stipulated the establishment of a security corridor stretching around 6 kilometres north and south of the strategically vital M4 highway which connects Latakia and Saraqib. As part of the agreement, Turkish and Russian military units have conducted joint patrols along the highway to buffer between pro-Damascus forces and rebel and Islamist militias.

The ceasefire has largely held, despite some intermittent bombardment in the area from both sides.

NLF spokesperson Sayf Raad said Russian aircraft and regime forces were continuously violating the Turkish-Russian deal in targeting military positions, villages and towns, according to AFP.

The NLF responded by shelling pro-Syrian government front line positions in Idlib and the Hama province, said Charlies Lister, director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria programme.

Analysts saw Russia’s attack as a warning to the Turkish government over it sending Syrian opposition fighters turned mercenaries to fight in Libya and the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey and Russia support opposing sides in those conflicts as well.

Nicholas Heras, of the Institute for the Study of War, said the raid was a message to Erdoğan.

"Putin is telling Erdoğan that he has the ability to strike Erdoğan’s favoured Syrian rebel proxies at will inside Syria, if Turkey does not de-escalate its military activities against Russian interests in conflicts in Libya, Syria and in Nagorno-Karabakh," he told AFP.

Samuel Ramani, a researcher at Oxford University, said that Turkey's current focus on Nagorno-Karabakh meant "it might not retaliate immediately".

"But the risk of a major escalation" between Russia and Turkey "remains high, as both sides fundamentally disagree on the region's future", he told AFP.