The Russian air forces, in coordination with Turkey, carried out an air strike on a militant weapons store in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province that belongs to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia, the defense ministry said according to a Russian RIA news agency report on Wednesday.
RIA also cited the defense ministry as saying the Russian air strike targeted the militant group’s store of drones and other weapons that it planned to use in an attack on the Russian air base at Hmeimim in western Syria.
Idlib, in northwest Syria, is controlled by HTS militia, marking the last stronghold of opposition groups who rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Around four million people now live there, including hundreds of thousands of opponents of Assad who fled there from other parts of the country.
Having a wide influence in northern Syria, HTS includes the former Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. The jihadist group seized control of most of the city this month, following fights that lasted months with Turkish-backed militias.
A deal that was reached between Moscow and Ankara last September aimed to avert a massive government assault on Idlib province and adjacent areas by creating a 15 to 20km buffer zone surrounding the country’s last major rebel stronghold.
According to the agreement, Russian and Turkish forces would patrol the buffer zone while ”radically-minded” groups, including HTS, would withdraw from the zone and hand over heavy weapons by 20 October.
More than half the Idlib region is held by HTS, while Turkey-backed rebels hold most of the remaining region. HTS has not yet made its position known in the agreement.
Assad’s government has retaken large parts of Syria from opposition fighters and militants since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people since 2011, with the repression of anti-government protests, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.