In the days since Turkey downed a Russian warplane that flew into its airspace, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a bombing campaign that’s destroyed bakeries and relief convoys in northern Syria, cutting the flow of food to more than half a million civilians.
The result has been a complete halt in relief operations by major humanitarian aid groups, all of which operate out of Turkey. It’s also brought the region to the brink of further catastrophe as hundreds of thousands of residents are caught in the crossfire and are unable to flee their homes.
Since Russia began bombing Sept. 30, “there’s been a huge wave of internally displaced,” said Karl Schembri, regional coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council. The situation has grown worse since the shoot-down Nov. 24. “People cannot move at all, and there is nowhere for them to flee to,” he told McClatchy.
All of Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, have now shut their borders to fleeing refugees, and informal camps for displaced persons just inside the Syrian border are reported to be packed.
The stepped-up Russian bombing campaign has had another effect, rebels and aid workers say, allowing the Islamic State to move into areas that it previously had not controlled close to the Turkish border.
Putin’s aim appears to be cutting supply lines from Turkey to rebel forces and civilians in northern Syria as well as, Turkish officials say, preventing the creation of a safe zone just inside Syria where civilians could flee without fear of being bombed. If the Turks were to reopen their border, aid workers say, the refugee flow into the country could be enormous.
The U.S. and other NATO allies have accepted Turkey’s account that its air force repeatedly warned the Russian plane before shooting it down Nov 24. But Putin Thursday described the incident as “this awful war crime, the murder of our people” and warned Turkey it will regret its action “more than once.” He then declared that his Turkish counterpart had gone crazy.
Combining abusive language against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a slur on Islam, he declared: “I guess Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by stripping it of its sanity.”
But it is the Russians, in the words of a U.N. official, who appear to have “gone ballistic.”
Tensions between the two historic rivals are endemic in Syria because they are backing different sides – Russia, the government of President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, the rebel forces trying to overthrow it. Now,more incidents seem likely as Russia seeks to punish Turkey for the air incident.
Russian revenge appears to have two main components. One was attacking the supply chain of food and other essentials for civilians in the border area.
The second, international observers say, appears to be battlefield support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia or YPG, a historic rival to Turkey, as it attempts to link mainly Kurdish-inhabited territory in northern Aleppo province with Afrin, a Kurdish enclave on Syria’s border with Turkey.
International observers say for the first time in two years, the YPG and Syrian government forces appear to be cooperating, with the YPG opening a route between the mainly Kurdish Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud to government-controlled parts of the city as part of an effort to control Kastello, a key point on the main road from Aleppo to Turkey. The YPG forces have benefited, according to U.N., Turkish government and rebel officials, from Russian and government airstrikes targeting rebel forces that receive covert military aid from the U.S., West European and Arab states.
The Obama administration has said little about the moves by the YPG, which has been the U.S.’s chief ally on the ground in Syria.
The Russian air campaign, combined with a ground offensive by Iranian and Syrian government forces, also benefited the Islamic State, which reportedly has advanced as moderate rebel forces fell back to meet the Iranian push.
And while moderate Arab rebel forces, backed by U.S. and Turkish air strikes, have conquered several villages controlled by the Islamic State close to the Turkish border, the main gains in the fighting of the past 10 days have been made by the Islamic State, observers say.
“Everyone knows that any wrong move creates a vacuum, and the Islamic State will capitalize on it,” said a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters. “In fact IS has taken quite a bit of ground.”
The U.N. official said Islamic State fighters are closing on Azaz, a Syrian city on the Turkish border. If the Islamic State were to capture the city, the U.N. official said he feared the Turks would close the border and all humanitarian aid would halt.
The advance of the Islamic State toward Azaz in only one of the factors adding to the distress of civilians in Syria.
Immediately after Turkey shot down the Russian warplane, Russian aircraft launched air attacks in the border area, striking major transportation hubs where humanitarian aid is transshipped. Russian aircraft hit one such hub three times in five days, incinerating 15 trucks, killing up to a dozen drivers and injuring seven, humanitarian aid officials said.
On subsequent days, Russian or Syrian warplanes attacked key facilities inside Syria. On Nov. 26 – Thanksgiving Day – an airstrike destroyed a grain silo in Tasbabet, with capacity to supply mills and bakeries throughout Idlib province, according to the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
One day later, an airstrike targeted a bakery in Saraqeb that served 50,000 people a day.
On Nov. 28, an airstrike destroyed another bakery as well as a water pumipng station in Ma’aret Numan, a town in southern Idlib province. Also targeted: two schools in Jisr Shughour in Idlib province, which subsequently discontinued classes for more than 1000 students.
Now the aid cannot flow. “The fighting is destroying all sorts of civilian infrastructure, from houses to schools, bakeries and hospitals,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the groups that had been supplying food and other aid into Syria. “At the same time “We’ve had to suspend most of our programs because of the security situation, just when they are most needed.”
McClatchy special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc