Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately acted to call his Turkish counterpart to offer his condolences and an apology to contain possible damage from a botched Russian airstrike that killed three Turkish troops and wounded 11 inside a building near al-Bab in northern Syria on Thursday.
Both Turkish and Russian officials described the incident as an accident, and said a joint investigation is launched into the airstrike, which highlights the complex nature of shaky battleground in Syria. An “investigation and studies related to the event will be carried out by both sides,” the Turkish military said in a statement.
In his phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Putin blamed poor coordination for the friendly fire. Kremlin said the strike aimed at an Islamic State target.
In first comment on behalf of the Turkish government, Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci echoed the official statement from the Turkish military. “In the statements made by the Russian President and the Turkish Armed Forces, it is officially announced that the Russian plane accidentally shot our soldiers,” Zeybekci told Turkish lawmakers in Parliament.
The immediate effort to limit any fallout from the tragic incident emanates from the fact that neither Turkey nor Russia want deterioration in relations at a delicate moment as both sides recently have fostered cordial relations, and coordinate their diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict through a joint push. In late December, Turkey and Russia jointly brokered a shaky truce between rebels and government forces. In January, Iran joined Turkey and Russia in organizing Astana talks that saw formation of a trilateral mechanism to monitor the fragile truce, while warring sides first time gathered together at a meeting since the uprising began six years ago.
Turkey and Russia edged closer to an all-out military confrontation in late 2015 after a Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian warplane over the Turkey-Syria border. Moscow and Ankara mended ties last summer after months of diplomatic wrangling and back-channel contacts between Kremlin and the Turkish presidency.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chief of the Russian Federal Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, believes that the incident will not affect recently improved relations between Turkey and Russia. Speaking to Russian press, he said Russian Army Chief called his Turkish counterpart to express his sadness, and reached an agreement to coordinate military activities so as to avoid similar incidents in the future.
For Dzhabarov, the accidental Russian airstrike is fundamentally different from Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane in 2015. “Two incidents are completely different. We were opposing sides then, but we are allies now.”
Turkish-led rebels continue to advance on outskirts of al-Bab, a key strategic point north of Aleppo, coveted both by rebels and the Syrian government forces who are only 1.5 miles away from the town. Russia found itself meticulously treading a balancing act between incongruent agendas of two allies, Turkey and the Syrian regime, in a rapidly shifting geopolitical ground riven with tensions and multifaceted challenges.
Clash of interests writ large as Turkey’s prolonged campaign to take over al-Bab and Syrian government’s audacious push for the strategic town leave Russia in the middle of unbridgeable interests of two opposing sides. The airstrike only reveals that enduring dilemma as Russia now provides air cover for both sides vying to capture the same town from encircled ISIS militants.
And another worrying sign for Russia is report of brief clashes between Turkey-backed rebels and the Syrian government forces outside al-Bab, despite earlier Turkish remarks to coordinate troop movement with Moscow to avoid an encounter with the Syrian military.
Turkey’s casualties are on the steady rise after its forces have bogged down in front of al-Bab for months. On Wednesday, five Turkish troops were killed in an ISIS attack. With the recent loss of three soldiers in Russian airstrike, death toll now rose to 64, signaling a costly campaign ahead as Turkey now hammer out safe zone plans in Syria with the U.S. after President Donald Trump and Mr. Erdogan agreed to work closely on the Syrian conflict and coordinate their fight against ISIS in a phone call on Tuesday.
President Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told NTV news channel that Mr. Erdogan urged the U.S. President to partner with the Turkish forces, not the Syrian Kurdish militia, in an anticipated operation to re-take Raqqa, the capital of self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. The U.S. strives to navigate through a thin line not to alienate Turkey while also considering to work with the Kurdish militia to defeat ISIS in Syria, a key priority for the Trump administration.