A Russian warplane on Thursday accidentally hit a building in northern Syria with Turkish soldiers inside, killing at least three troops and wounding 11, Turkey’s military said.
Russia immediately apologized for the bombing near the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, which came amid warming ties between Turkey and Russia after they were strained by Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near the border with Syria two years ago.
Meanwhile, in a further reflection of how complex the Syrian theater of war has become, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters and Syrian government-allied troops briefly clashed on the outskirts of al-Bab in the first such confrontation since the Turkey-backed offensive began in northern Syria last August.
Thursday’s clashes came despite Ankara’s remarks the previous day that it was in talks with Moscow to coordinate troop movements and avoid any encounter with the Syrian military in the fighting around the town.
Al-Bab, one of the Islamic State group’s last major strongholds in Syria besides its self-declared capital of Raqqa, has emerged as the latest epicenter of the Syrian conflict, where the interests of various stakeholders converge. Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters have been trying unsuccessfully to capture the town from IS for months.
More recently, Russian-backed Syrian government forces and their allies have converged on the town, and on Thursday made significant advances that brought them less than three kilometers (1.5 miles) from the town, according to opposition monitors.
The race for al-Bab has shaped up to be a test for the emerging cooperation between Russia and Turkey to help end the 6-year-old conflict in Syria — and the outcome could define a lot of what happens next.
The Russian airstrike came as Turkey was holding funerals for five Turkish soldiers killed in an IS attack near al-Bab the day before.
President Vladimir Putin promptly called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to express regrets over what the Russian leader called a “tragic incident.”
The Turkish military said Turkey and Russia were conducting a joint investigation into the bombing.
The two countries reconciled last year after ties were soured over the downing of the Russian jet in 2015. In late December, they brokered a cease-fire for Syria, and in January they sponsored peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, attended by Syrian rebels and officials of President Bashar Assad’s government.
The deaths from Thursday’s airstrike raise the number of Turkish troops killed in Turkey’s operation in Syria to 64.