What went wrong during a Russian air strike that killed Turkish troops?

Smoke rises from the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria February 1, 2017.

Smoke rises from the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria February 1, 2017.

Experts believe Ankara will take control of the Syrian city of Al-Bab after it has been liberated from the Islamic State.

Russian Air Force planes accidentally launched a missile strike on Turkish troops in north Syria, killing three servicemen and wounding 11 more, the Turkish General Staff reported.

At 8:40 a.m. local time on Feb. 9, a Russian fighter plane on a sortie against the Islamic State erroneously hit a building in the town of Al-Bab that was occupied by Turkish troops, reads a statement on the Turkish Armed Forces website.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a phone call to Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to express his condolences. Both countries have begun investigating the incident.

A report by the Russian presidential press service posted on the Kremlin's website reads that Putin, “expressed his condolences over the tragic incident that resulted in the deaths of several Turkish servicemen near the town of Al-Bab.”

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that the Turkish servicemen were killed as a result of mistaken coordinates during the Russian air strike.

Peskov added that Russia and Turkey will urgently improve coordination. Army General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, spoke on the telephone with his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akaru, to discuss the situation around Al-Bab, and also expressed his condolences. The two generals agreed on closer coordination of their forces in Syria, sources in the Russian Defense Ministry told Gazeta.ru.

Syria accuses Turkey

“Russian bombers were flying a sortie to destroy Islamic State positions near the town of Al-Bab,” said a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry's department for information and mass communications. “The [two countries'] chiefs of general staffs have agreed on closer coordination of joint operations, and on exchanging information about the situation on the ground.”

Syrian government troops approached Al-Bab from the east on Feb. 6, and prior to that, Turkish troops jointly with Syrian opposition forces had blocked the city from the north. Rami Abdul Rahman, chairman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Al-Bab found itself under siege after pro-government forces had blocked the road linking it to Rakka, the Syrian citadel of the Islamic State, in the early hours of Feb. 6.

The Turkish troops with their local allies are unofficially competing against Syrian government troops over who will beat the other side to entering Al-Bab, said Vladimir Isayev, a professor at the Institute of Asian and African Countries at Moscow State University.

This may transform into a serious conflict, with the opposing sides fighting each other rather than the Islamic State, said Isayev. They have been on different sides of the barricades since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian government has repeatedly accused Turkey of aiding and abetting terrorism, describing the Turkish troops involved in Operation Euphrates Shield as occupiers of Syrian territory.

There is not yet an agreement on who will storm Al-Bab, and how. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said in late January that Ankara would not cede control over the city to Damascus after its liberation.

On Jan. 8, Russia and Turkey launched its first joint operation outside Al-Bab, with the two countries' warplanes staging coordinated strikes on Islamic State positions.

Turkey to take Al-Bab

The operation to seal off Al-Bab would not have been possible without a prior clear-cut agreement on who will control which part of the city, said Colonel (retired) Viktor Murakhovsky. The chiefs of the Russian and Turkish general staffs met and agreed on this, not to mention there were a number of lower-level meetings between operations officers. Apart from conducting joint air strikes in Syria's Aleppo province, Russia and Turkey exchange military intelligence.

Yuri Mavashev, head of the political department at the Center for Modern Turkish Studies, said that Moscow and Ankara had earlier reached an agreement on Al-Bab eventually coming under Turkish control.

The latest incident will not affect Moscow's strategic relationship with Ankara, said Vladimir Sotnikov, director of the Russia East-West Center. He has no doubts that Turkey will establish control over Al-Bab following the city's liberation.

“Let us recall what happened in November 2015 when the Turks shot down a [Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber], allegedly by mistake,” said Sotnikov. “Russia could have kept reminding Ankara about that incident, but we were above this, so Erdogan and Putin managed to re-establish good personal relations; at Turkey's request, mind you.”

Sotnikov added that Turkey very much needs Russia at the moment. Ankara has been having serious problems with its NATO partners, the burden of unresolved domestic political disagreements is piling ever higher, and the country is in dire need of support in its continuing fight against the Islamic State. According to official reports, at least 60 Turkish servicemen were killed in the six months of the military operation in the north of Syria.

The Feb. 9 report by the Russian presidential press service also mentions decisions made at the Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan: “The sides confirmed their readiness to actively promote the Astana and Geneva Syrian settlement processes.”

A joint Russian, Turkish, and Iranian group was set up in Astana on Feb. 6 to monitor the current ceasefire in Syria. 

First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru

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