An unusual attack on oil facilities in Turkish-occupied northern Syria occurred on Friday evening. Locals reported large explosions near Al-Bab and Jarablus. Turkey invaded this area in the fall of 2016 in Operation Euphrates Shield. The use of ballistic missiles points to a sophisticated state-backed operation against the oil facilities. Many alleged Russia and the Syrian regime were behind the attack which appears aimed at denying Turkish-backed Syrian groups from trading oil.
Turkish media and reports did not speculate on who fired the missiles.
Anadolu, a state-backed channel in Turkey, said that three people were killed and dozens were wounded. It said that "ballistic missiles were fired at the Tarhin region of al-Bab district and Al-Hamran region of Jarablus district on the border with Turkey.
In the past, Russia has targeted oil facilities in Syria used by ISIS. In 2015, Russia accused Turkey of shooting down a Russian plane out of a desire to protect "oil supply lines to Turkish territory" that come from ISIS-held areas. In December 2015, Russia carried out airstrikes on areas where ISIS was conducting oil trade.
The missile strikes on March 5 were large and included video that showed explosions. Those videos appeared online on Friday night. Ballistic missiles have been used increasingly in the region. Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen often fire ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. Iran has also been testing improved and more precise missiles.
Russia, like Iran, is a ballistic missile powerhouse. However the use of these kind of missiles has been rare in recent years in Syria. Russia has hosted talks on Syria with Iran and Turkey in what is called the "Astana Process". Russia and Turkey have worked on various deals in Syria, in September 2018 regarding Idlib, in October 2019 over areas in northern Syria that the US withdrew from, and in the spring of 2020 after clashes between Turkey and Syria. Russia and Turkey have also conducted joint patrols.
However, the Syrian regime and Russia both argue that ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other extremists operate in Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria. Turkey says it backs the Syrian National Army, however the SNA is made up of a plethora of armed militias, some of which are extremists.
On February 28, the White Helmets asserted that the Syrian regime and Russia used Tochka missiles to target an area east of Aleppo. Video posted online on March 6 showed the wreckage of a Tochka missile allegedly used in the March 5 attack on the oil facilities.
Video from March 5 showed the strikes and the aftermath as well as missile fragments that were found. Social media accounts asserted that the Tochka missile fragments found near Tarhine in Syria indicate Russia was behind the attack. Others said it was the Syrian regime. Such a large attack would likely not happen without both being aware of it, regardless of which forces fired the missiles. Some said the missile were fired from the Kuweireis air base which is 30km east of Aleppo.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.