Punishing the truly guilty

I can’t look at this photo of what used to be. It’s just too painful now.

It took the Russians a few days to properly formulate a response to Turkey shooting down its Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft, but over the weekend they finally took vengeance on the real villains: Syrians who eat bread and drink water. I really do wish I was joking:

A reported Russian airstrike on Saturday in central Idlib province destroyed an aid dispensary containing a bakery that produced over 300,000 pounds of bread per month and a well providing safe-drinking water to an estimated 50,000 people, local activists tell Syria Direct.

As a result of the attacks “the well and bread ovens [in Maarat al-Numan] have completely stopped functioning and one of the dispensary’s drivers as well as the son of another driver were killed,” Zacharia al-Haraki, the director of al-Dura al-Khair charity that operates the dispensary, told Syria Direct.

Charred bags of grain lay beside a mangled water-truck in a video showing the strike’s aftermath posted by local pro-opposition media site AlMarra Today on Sunday.

“The strike was definitely Russian, although the regime and their Russian allies both target civilian sites such as ovens and schools,” said al-Haraki.

Not content with leaving the people of Maarat al-Numan without food and water, the Russians apparently decided to repeat the attack in nearby Saraqib on Sunday, this time being sure to strike a Turkish charity:

A bakery established by one of Turkey’s largest humanitarian organisations, IHH, was targeted by suspected Russian air strikes in Syria’s Idlib province, according to the organisation.

Russia was blamed by Syrian opposition activists for the attacks, which left at least  44 people dead on Sunday.

IHH said via Twitter on Monday that the bakery, which was established 16 months ago, provided daily bread for nearly 45,000 internally displaced Syrians.

Mustafa Ozbek, from IHH’s media office in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera that the bakery – in the town of Saraqeb – was destroyed in the attack.

I don’t really mean to suggest that Russia purposely bombed two charities distributing food and water to people who have precious little of either (although I’m not ruling it out, either), and I certainly don’t mean to single them out when it seems like just about everybody has to answer for one charity-destroying airstrike or another. But as with the US air campaign, it’s worth asking, now that we’re a couple of months into Russia’s Syrian intervention, what the hell it’s actually accomplished, apart from adding, significantly, to the death and destruction that were already far too prevalent throughout that country. Bashar al-Assad’s position has definitely improved along the important Damascus-Aleppo highway, and his army won a significant victory when it lifted the Aleppo airport siege. But Syrian rebels just took back some of the territory around Aleppo that they’d lost to Assad a couple of weeks ago, and it’s beginning to look like we may already be reaching the limits of what Russian air power and Iranian ground forces can do to bolster Assad’s fortunes.

In other Russia-Turkey news, a couple of Belgian astrophysicists argued in a blog post last week that both countries are being a little misleading in their accounts of the incident. They found, for example, that while Ankara says the Russian plane was in Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, its rate of speed when it was shot down indicates that it would have been over Turkey for only about 7 seconds. Maybe that’s a meaningless distinction, but the less time that plane spent in Turkish airspace, the more rash the decision to shoot it down appears. It also calls into question the idea that Turkey warned the plane off ten times over five minutes, since there’s no way the Turks could have known five minutes in advance that a plane moving that fast was definitely going to cross, or even approach, the border. On the other hand, the flight path of the Russian plane shows pretty clearly that it could not have been trying to avoid Turkish airspace, as the Russians claimed.

Russia also announced some new economic sanctions against Turkey over the weekend, including a ban on agricultural imports from Turkey and restrictions on Turkish construction firms bidding for projects in Russia. As expected, Russia avoided bringing down the big hammer, cutting off its energy exports to Turkey, because the loss of those exports would also have serious repercussions for the Russian economy. But there are a couple of joint energy projects, including a Black Sea pipeline and the construction of a nuclear power plant in Turkey, that may now be reassessed by Moscow.

On the “petty but still noteworthy front,” Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently snubbed his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdoğan, at the Paris climate talks today, refusing to meet with the Turkish leader on the sidelines of the conference. Ankara refuses to apologize for shooting the plane down, even though there’s a strong case that it probably should, and anyway somebody probably ought to try being the bigger party here. In lieu of acting like adults, though, Erdoğan has instead decided to offer Putin a bet: if Putin can prove that Turkey has been buying oil from ISIS, as Russia has argued over the past week, then Erdoğan says he’ll resign, provided that Putin agrees to resign if he can’t prove those charges. I suppose introducing some kind of technicality that forces them both to resign is out of the question, but I do think this idea shows promise as a tool of diplomatic de-escalation in future conflicts.

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