Russia and Turkey are two sides of the same coin. They are both heavily involved in some of the world’s most significant ongoing conflicts including in Libya, the Caucasus and Syria.
They remain at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides with both hoping to expand their military presence and political reach in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Though both countries are also waging proxy battles, it is rare to see them come head-to-head.
But a deadly Russian air strike that took out dozens of Turkish-backed rebel fighters in northwest Syria on Monday has marked a significant escalation.
Observers say the attack in the Jabal al-Dweila area, which targeted a military training camp for Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkey-backed armed groups in the area, was a “message” to Ankara.
Given the “enormity” of the attack, which killed at least 35 fighters and wounded more than 50, Lister said it is possible that wider geopolitics may have pushed Russia to strike.
Though Russia – a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and Turkey negotiated a fragile ceasefire in Idlib, which largely held since March this year, the latest escalation points to signs of strain over Turkey’s involvement in various battles.
Most notably, in the Caucasus, where Ankara has declared support for Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.Moscow, traditionally closer to Armenia, has voiced dismay at reports indicating Syrian mercenaries have been sent to fight alongside Azerbaijani forces – opening up a new front in the proxy standoff.
And in Libya, thousands of Syrian fighters have been reportedly sent by Turkey over the past year to fight on behalf of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which is fighting Russian-backed forces.
But in Syria, although they support opposite sides in the country’s nine-year conflict, Moscow and Ankara have worked together to maintain a ceasefire in the last rebel-held enclave in the northwest.
Earlier this year, they brokered a truce in Idlib to halt a government offensive that displaced nearly one million people, in one of the worst humanitarian crises of Syria’s nine-year war.
Of those displaced in the offensive, more than 200,000 have returned home to their towns and villages, most since the ceasefire went into force.
But the truce in Idlib, a war-battered province that is home to more than three million people, has remained fragile with intermittent bombardment in the area from both sides.
‘Radical’ groups in Idlib
Other experts including Turkish columnist Semih Idiz agree the timing of the Russian air strike is “significant” at a time when Ankara is “flexing its muscles” in the Middle East and the Caucasus.