The recent killing of three Turkish troops in a Russian air raid in northern Syria may be, as announced by officials, an accident, but analysts remain doubtful that the attack could have been deliberately carried out as a warning to Turkey.
Noting there is no mention of an apology or reparations in the Kremlin’s statement regarding the incident, he told Xinhua, “This can be seen as an intimidation.”
Three Turkish soldiers were killed and 11 others wounded in the Russian attack around the town of al-Bab on Thursday morning. Both Ankara and Moscow have blamed the incident on insufficient coordination between the two sides.
Turkish forces, backed by the rebel Free Syrian Army militants, have been fighting for months to drive out the Islamic State (IS) from al-Bab, a town about 30 km from the Turkish border.
“It may be an accident, but may also be intentional,” Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations with Ankara-based Middle East Technical University (METU), told Xinhua.
He believes both sides may be faulty for the failure in proper coordination. “The incident shows how difficult it is to maintain military coordination between Turkey and Russia,” he said.
An initial statement released by the Turkish General Staff on the day of the attack said the soldiers were killed during a Russian air attack on IS elements in al-Bab when a bomb mistakenly hit a building where the soldiers were staying.
On Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus described the episode as a “complete accident,” citing preliminary findings.
The Hurriyet daily reported the same day that the building hit was the operational headquarters of the Turkish tank unit, a fact that raised doubts about the Turkish troops being targeted accidentally on purpose.
“A headquarters would not be situated on the forefront in a conflict zone, but rather at a relatively rear position,” said Yilmaz, who taught at several Turkish universities.
In a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the day of the attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences and regret.
On the second day of the incident, the Russian and Turkish accounts diverged a bit.
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that the Turkish troops were hit due to wrong coordinates provided by the Turkish military.
“Our military depended on coordinates provided by its Turkish partners while carrying out the airstrikes. Turkish soldiers should not have been at that place,” he said, underlining a lack of coordination between the two countries.
The Turkish General Staff, for its part, dismissed the Russian claim of wrong coordinates, noting the Turkish troops targeted had been in the same location for around 10 days.
The coordinates of the Turkish troops were once again communicated to the Russian side the night before the attack, as earlier on the same day a rocket had been fired from Russian-controlled territory in Syria at the place where friendly elements were located, the Turkish General Staff said in its statement.
Several Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, said a day before the Russian strike that Turkey was coordinating its operations in al-Bab with Russia.
“I’ll hit you on the head if you step out of the line” is the message Russia is giving with this strike, remarked Yilmaz.
Despite disagreements on how the incident happened, Turkey did not make a big issue of the deadly episode so far.
Turkey must reduce the tension considering Russia is militarily the strongest power in the Syrian theater, METU’s Bagci commented.
On Nov. 24 of last year, the anniversary of Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane in Syria, four Turkish soldiers were killed and nine others injured in an air attack near al-Bab.
Moscow denied the involvement of either Russia or Syria, while Turkish press reports referred to an Iranian-made drone and a Syrian jet joining the assault, claiming they took off from a Russian-controlled military airport in Syria.
Turkish-Russian ties were seriously damaged after the downing incident, while Turkey suffered heavily from the economic sanctions Russia imposed thereafter, and the relationship only started to warm up last summer.
Since then, Turkey has seemed to pursue a Syrian policy more in line with Russia, officially announcing an end in its efforts to topple the Syrian regime.
Ankara launched a military offensive into Syria last August to push the IS away from the Turkish border and prevent the emergence there of a Kurdish corridor.
As noted by Yilmaz, the reports in Russian media which suggested the latest attack was conducted by advanced jets piloted by experienced staff seem to support the theory that the strike is no mistake.
According to the news portal turkrus.com, which focuses on Turkish-Russian relations, Russia’s Kommersant daily said Friday that jets like Su-24, Su-25 and Su-34 carried out Thursday’s operations around al-Bab.
The Kommersant report, based on an anonymous Russian defense official, also said the jets were piloted by experienced pilots. The same source noted that the targets hit during the operations were determined based on data from satellites and intelligence services.
The Turkish and Russian militaries have reportedly been sharing information regarding their operations around al-Bab for more than a month to avoid mishaps.
“I don’t think there is really proper coordination between Turkey and Russia,” maintained Yilmaz.
In contrast to most analysts, Haldun Solmazturk, chairman of Incek debates with Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, feels the strike was not intentional but an accident.
Russia would have nothing to gain politically or militarily in the region by confronting Turkey, he told Xinhua.
“Such clashes are inevitable when coordination is so poor,” he added.
In the view of Bagci, Turkey’s military operation against al-Bab risks confrontation with Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government.
Russian jets have been backing the advance of the Syrian army toward al-Bab from south and southwest, while Turkish troops and its partners are besieging the town from the northern, eastern and western directions.
Press reports said Saturday that Turkish troops and its allies entered al-Bab and captured several neighborhoods in the center of the town, while the Syrian army got very close to it.
According to reports in local and international media outlets, Syrian troops had a violent clash with Turkish forces and its allies around a village near al-Bab prior to the Russian air attack.
Though not officially confirmed, the reports raised doubts that the Russian airstrike could be a response to the clash between Syrian and Turkish troops.
Russia’s Sputnik, citing a Russian Ministry of Defense statement, reported Saturday that the Syrian army backed by Russian jets captured the town of Tadif near al-Bab.
“As a result of the advance, the Syrian government forces have reached a demarcation line with the Free Syrian Army’s units as it had been agreed with the Turkish side,” the statement said.
A Turkish news portal, abcgazetesi.com, claimed Saturday that the Russian air raid was in retaliation against an attack by Turkish troops and its partners on Syrian and Russian soldiers in a village near al-Bab.
According to the news portal, 12 Syrian troops were killed and six others were taken hostage in the attack on al-Hus village, which lies to the east of al-Bab.
The Russian strike on the Turkish armored units’ headquarters came after this incident, the report said, adding that the six hostages were later released and the village was returned to the Syrian army.
The news portal also claimed that Turkish troops and its partners would withdraw from al-Bab for the Syrian army to take it.
Before mending ties with Russia, Turkey, which supports some rebel groups in the civil war in Syria, had pushed for the downfall of the Syrian government.
Baris Doster, a professor lecturing on Turkish domestic and foreign policy at Istanbul’s Marmara University, believes the message of the incident is that Russia would not allow Turkey to maneuver in Syria without its consent.
Maintaining that the Russian strike on Turkish troops could not be an accident, he said on Halk TV on Saturday that global powers like Russia would not commit such mistakes.
Yilmaz feels the Russian strike is also linked to Turkey’s recent steps in foreign policy which could suggest Ankara would again act more in line with Washington, its NATO ally.
The Russian airstrike coincided with a two-day visit to Ankara by new CIA chief Michael Pompeo.
Two days ahead of Pompeo’s visit, President Erdogan had his first phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, in which the two leaders reportedly agreed to act together in al-Bab and the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
“I know Turkey is under strong pressure to cooperate with the U.S. rather than Russia in the Middle East,” stated Bagci.
Ankara has proposed to Washington a concrete plan to jointly drive out the IS from Raqqa, seen as the group’s de facto capital. According to media reports, Pompeo said the U.S. would seriously consider the plan.
Turkey had a tense relationship with the Obama administration over Syria, which, among others, had planned to capture Raqqa together with Kurds-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces despite vehement Turkish opposition.
The day the CIA chief arrived in Turkey, Turkish Premier Yildirim talked over the phone with U.S. Vice President Michael Richard Pence and reportedly agreed to strengthen ties.
“The timing of the Russian strike is meaningful,” remarked Yilmaz, noting that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was in Ukraine on Friday.
What made Russia most angry is the Turkish proposal of launching the operation against Raqqa jointly with the U.S., according to Yilmaz.
In addition, Cavusoglu’s visit could be perceived as a support for Ukraine at a time when clashes revived in the country’s east, since Russia and Ukraine are on bad terms as Kiev has accused Moscow of supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine, said Yilmaz. Enditem