Turkey, Russia Offer Conflicting Accounts Over Botched Airstrike

Turkish soldiers carry coffin of a slain soldier accidentally killed in a Russian airstrike outside al-Bab in northern Syria.

Kremlin and the Turkish military came up with two different accounts about how a Russian airstrike ended up targeting a group of Turkish troops inside a building near al-Bab in northern Syria, revealing air of tension and confusion despite earlier political efforts to stem any fallout from the tragic incident.

The specter of conflict pervaded the discussion about who was responsible for the accidental killing of three Turkish soldiers in Russian airstrikes as both sides are groping for an answer and offering conflicting accounts over the tragic incident.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was Turkish military who gave the coordinates before the airstrikes, shifting the focus on the modalities of cooperation between two countries to coordinate their operations on Syria’s multilayered war theater.

“Unfortunately, our military, while carrying out strikes on terrorists, was guided by coordinates given to them by our Turkish partners, and Turkish servicemen should not have been present on those coordinates,” Reuters quoted Mr. Peskov as saying.

Echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin who blamed poor coordination for what he says the ‘tragic incident’, Mr. Peskov also lamented about “lack of coordination in providing coordinates.”

His formulation, however, runs counter to what the Turkish military says. A statement by the Turkish Armed Forces clarifies that the military has been sharing information with Russia on regular basis about its operations in Syria since Jan. 12 when the two sides clinched a deal to coordinate their military efforts to avoid an undesired incident.

As part of the deal, the Turkish military gave coordinates of the building hit by the Russian airstrikes to the Russian military a day before the fatal incident in which three soldiers were killed and 11 wounded. What makes the incident more tragic is the fact that the Turkish soldiers had been in the building for 10 days.

Their position was noted to Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria and Russian military attache in Ankara. This communication seemed to do nothing to change the course of events unraveled, underscoring the puzzling conundrum of the combustible battleground where dozens of actors entangled in a web of wars.

The temptation to keep raw feelings in check, however, was palpably strong with leaders from both countries were quick to assert that it was an accident, and vowed to work together to enlighten the incident in its entirety.

Mr. Putin called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer an apology and convey a condolence message. The Russian army chief followed the suit, and also called his Turkish counterpart to express his sadness.

Russia’s quickness to contain damage from the botch airstrike and swift diplomatic calls appears to have soothed jolted nerves of the Turkish authorities who face mounting public criticism over “embroilment in the Syrian quagmire” amid incessant rise of casualties.

In reaction to the incident on behalf of the Turkish government, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus preferred to highlight Mr. Putin’s condolence message to President Erdogan.

“From our side the issue is being investigated. Initial information shows this was an accident… and an undesired incident as a result of incorrect information, coordinates,” Reuters quoted the deputy prime minister as saying. He underlined the need for closer cooperation with both Russia and anti-ISIS international coalition led by the U.S to avoid similar accidents in the future.

On Wednesday, Turkey-backed forces closed in on outskirts of al-Bab after months-long bid to capture the strategic town from Islamic State militants. According to Al Masdar News of Lebanon, which cited Syrian opposition sources, the Turkish forces and rebel allies entered al-Bab on Friday morning, while the Syrian government troops renewed their push toward ISIS-held villages just outside the town with a new offensive. 

But the cost of the al-Bab campaign appears to be hardly endurable after Turkish casualties rose to more than 60, a factor that would give the Turkish government a pause ahead of a critical referendum this April.

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict but recently began to converge their diplomatic initiatives, forge a new axis to end the six-year-old war in terms favorable to their interests. Both countries came to the brink of a war when Turkey downed a Russian warplane after brief violation of its airspace in late 2015.

Last year, they reached a rapprochement after months of strained relations and a new understanding with regard to the Syrian conflict, a development that heralds emergence of a new geopolitical shift in the region after deterioration of Turkey’s ties with its Western allies.

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