Russian state news accuses Turkey of backing al Qaeda-linked groups

Russian state-run news agencies reported on Tuesday that Turkey was supporting jihadist groups in Syria that are linked to al Qaeda, after clashes between the Turkish military and Russia’s Syrian government allies in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

RIA Novosti and TASS reported that Turkey had supported the foundation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group known to have incorporated fighters from the Nusra Front, which had pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.

The report quotes HTS militants taken captive by Syrian government forces as saying that Turkey had played a role in the formation of the group, forcing Syrians to join its ranks and furnishing it with supplies.

One of the detained militants said that their family members had been taken hostage by Turkish officials and that he had been forced to fight alongside the jihadists to ensure their safety.

Russia and Turkey signed an agreement to prevent a Syrian government offensive against Idlib province, the last significant rebel-held area in the country, in September 2018.

But the Syrian government and its Russian backers relaunched their assault on Idlib last April, saying Turkey had failed to clear the province of what they called extremists, pointing to the HTS dominance of the area.

Five Turkish soldiers were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces on Monday.

In response, Turkey retaliated with artillery attacks in Idlib, saying that it killed more than 30 Syrian soldiers.

The fighting is seen by some as evidence that Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is headed for trouble. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Russia of not upholding its side of the Idlib deal, and the two countries have taken opposing sides in a number of other regional conflicts, including the civil war in Libya.