Three Turkish soldiers were killed and 11 were wounded in a Russian air strike "friendly fire" incident in northern Syria, the Turkish military said on February 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, TASS reported. Ankara and Moscow are to establish a commission with the goal of preventing similar accidents in the future, a source in Turkey’s Army General Staff told the Russian news agency.
Just as with the murder of the Russian ambassador in Ankara last December, the fatalities caused by the bombing of a building near al-Bab, a strategic town held by Islamic State, will not derail ties established under an ongoing rapprochement, analysts say. Moscow and Ankara are allies that are relying on each other to succeed with their respective goals in Syria. Turkey is also quite economically dependent on Russia at a time of economic difficulties. Most of its energy is imported from Russia and it would not like to see further disruptions to the flows of Russian tourists and Turkish exports of the type that occurred when Putin introduced sanctions following the shooting down of a Russian attack aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border by Turkish jets in November 2015.
In their phone call, Putin and Erdogan agreed to "increase military co-operation during operations in Syria against Islamic State militants and other extremist organisations", RIA news agency reported.
Syrian opposition groups backed by the Turkish military recently launched a major offensive to recapture al-Bab from Islamic State but there have been strong counter-attacks and Turkish soldiers have become bogged down. On February 8, five Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes with members of the jihadist group near the town.
Turkey last August initiated a military operation, codenamed Euphrates Shield, to clear its borders of Islamic State fighters. More than 60 Turkish servicemen have been killed in Syria since then.
Russia, Turkey and Iran have lately been working together to broker a ceasefire in Syria. Turkey and Russia have also carried out joint air strikes on Islamic State targets in the divided, warring country.
The Russian airstrike that killed the Turkish soldiers occurred on the day that new CIA director Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara, on his first foreign visit since taking the helm of the American spy agency.
Following a phone conversation with Erdogan earlier this week, US President Donald Trump sent Pompeo to Turkey to discuss security issues in a move seen as part of a reset of relations between Washington and Ankara.
Trump reiterated “US support for Turkey as a strategic partner and NATO ally, and welcomed Turkey’s contribution to the counter-ISIS campaign,” during the phone call, Ankara said.
Erdogan and Trump also agreed on joint actions against Islamic State in al-Bab and in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, Reuters reported earlier in February, quoting Turkish presidential sources.
Ankara is hoping for much improved relations with the US under the presidency of Trump. Ties between the two countries were strained during the Obama administration, especially after last year’s coup attempt.
The Obama administration failed to agree to Ankara’s demand for the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government says was behind the botched putsch.
US support for the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, which Turkey sees as a terrorist group because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also added to tensions.
During his phone conversation with Trump, Erdogan urged the US to stop supporting the YPG, according to Reuters.
In Ankara, Pompeo met with Erdogan and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s intelligence organisation (MIT).
Erdogan and Pompeo discussed the extradition of Gulen, the YPG and possible joint action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Turkish newspaper Milliyet reported.