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MURAT YETKİN >Russian jet hit Turkish soldiers in Syria while CIA chief was in Turkey

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Let’s just look at the facts that we know chronologically:

* A Russian war plane that took off from the Hmeymim air base in Syria hit a building southwest of the Syrian town of Al-Bab at around 08.40 a.m. on Feb. 9. 

* The Turkish military announced that three soldiers were killed - Sergeant Mehmet Şahin, Corporal Mücahit Topal, Contracted Private Ömer Akkuş - and 11 were wounded in an offensive to take the town. Two of the three killed soldiers (Şahin and Topal) belonged to the tank division supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces aiming to take Al-Bab from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH.

* Foreign Ministry sources said Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called his Russian counterpart, without giving any details about the conversation, amid rumors that the Turkish soldiers might have been hit by Syrian troops or pro-Iranian militia, which were only 3 km away from the Turkish positions.

* The Kremlin issued a statement saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had called Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to express regret about the tragic incident. It is also said the two leaders agreed to upgrade their military coordination in the Syria theatre and continue to support the Astana and Geneva conferences on the future of the civil war-hit Syria.

* Turkish military sources said Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov called his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in order to apologize for the “mistaken hit.” 

* The Kremlin issued another statement on Feb. 10 saying the “mistake” sourced from a miscoordinated attack based on data given to the Russian military by the Turkish military, creating suspicion about the Turkish position near Al-Bab.

* Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş confirmed that the hit was an “accident” because of “miscoordination.”

* The Turkish military issued a written statement in the late afternoon giving interesting details about the incident. According to the statement, the Turkish troops had been stationed in the same position - in the building where they were struck - for 10 days. It said the Turkish air forces base in Eskişehir - the designated coordination center - identified on Feb. 8 that a rocket had been launched on “friendly forces,” meaning the FSA, from the “Russian-controlled” area (reported to be the Russian base in Hmeymim). That launch took place at 23.41 p.m. and on the same night the Russian military attaché in Ankara was invited to the military headquarters and given the same information.

* Then in the morning the Russian plane hit the building, killing three soldiers.

Those are the facts, now let’s look at the coincidences:

* The new CIA chief Michael Pompeo was on his way to Turkey when the incident took place, on the first stop of his first trip abroad on Feb. 9, in order to discuss the main offensive to be conducted against ISIL and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups. The visit took place amid continuing Turkish concerns about U.S. cooperation on the ground with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia, the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is also designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.

* Pompeo’s visit came after the first telephone conversation between Turkish President Erdoğan and new U.S. President Donald Trump on Feb. 8. (Hours before that conversation, the rocket was launched from the Russian-controlled area to the Turkish controlled area around Al-Bab).

* As the diplomacy was ongoing between Moscow and Ankara over the incident, Erdoğan was in a meeting with Pompeo and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan.

And now let’s make some observations about all this:

* The incident shows just how vulnerable and open to provocations the situation in Syria is.

* It also shows how delicate Turkey’s position is in Syria, where it is at odds with its NATO ally the U.S. but in cooperation with its NATO rival Russia.

* Turkish soldiers keep being killed in the fight against ISIL.

* Thanks to diplomacy, a major crisis was avoided for a second time between Turkey and Russia after the assassination of Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov on Dec. 19, 2016, after which Erdoğan phoned Putin to express his sorrow and offer cooperation.

* If the same kind of diplomacy had been carried out after the downing of the Russian jet for violating the Turkish border on Nov. 24, 2015, a crisis could have also been avoided then. If that had happened, developments regarding the Syrian civil war could have unfolded quite differently.

February/11/2017

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