ANKARA: The US believes Russia has killed dozens of Turkish military personnel in the course of its operations in Syria, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, without specifying the place or the date of the incident.
The timing of the statement is telling amid ongoing debates about the activation of the Russian-made S-400 missile system in April as the US has blamed Russia, not Assad, for the deaths of Turkish troops in Idlib.
It is the first time that Washington has directly faulted Moscow over the death of at least 34 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike that was carried out by Russia-backed Syrian government forces in their campaign to retake Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold, Idlib. “We stand with our NATO ally Turkey, and we continue to consider additional measures to support Turkey and to end the violence in Idlib and in Syria more broadly,” Pompeo said.
Turkish officials last month requested that the US temporarily deploy Patriot air defense missile systems to its southern border town of Hatay in a show of support for ongoing military operations against Syrian government forces.
However, the US administration keeps warning Ankara against activating the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that the US sees as a threat to NATO aircraft.
“Over 50 Turkish soldiers died in Idlib in February and March. The majority were killed in an airstrike that most believe the Russian Air Forces conducted. Despite this, Turkish officials say the S-400 system will be turned on in April,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Arab News.
Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, believes that Pompeo’s statement comes as the US and Turkey deepen their cooperation in Syria and Washington sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Moscow and Ankara.
“The most interesting aspect of this statement is that it was delivered by Pompeo, while previously this issue was restricted to the level of the US Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey. This shows that US-Russia talks are advancing,” he told Arab News.
Jeffrey and US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft held consultation meetings in Turkey in early March to assure Ankara of Washington’s support.
According to Macaron, Erdogan, who is using the activation date next month of the S-400 system to leverage buying the US-made Patriots, hopes that Washington can make this deal if Ankara pledges not to make the Russian-made defense system indefinitely operational.
If Ankara proceeds in its activation plan next month, it will be unable to acquire America’s Patriot missile-defense batteries and may be subject to sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
“Acquiring the Patriots will give Turkey much needed deterrence against Russia and the Syrian regime, but it will not resolve the pending challenges facing US-Turkish relations,” Macaron said.
The Kremlin reacted to Pompeo’s statement, however, claiming that it was intended simply to disrupt Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria.
“Even during a global pandemic of an infectious disease, US officials continue their massive anti-Russian propaganda campaign, disseminating information that is clearly false,” Russian news agency TASS reported on Thursday. “Regretfully, in a bid to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey, who are cooperating in Syria, US officials even resort to plain lies.”