Ankara lost 33 soldiers in the Northwestern Syrian province after they were targeted by a Syrian airstrike. Commenting on the tragedy on Friday, Lavrov said the deaths were undoubtedly a tragedy, for which Moscow expresses its condolences, RT reported.
However, Ankara shares part of the blame for what happened, both because it failed to notify Russia about the location of its troops and because it fell short when it came to de-escalating violence in Idlib.
The plan, which Russia and Turkey agreed upon, was “to separate the normal opposition forces from the terrorists, to demilitarize the inner belt in the zone to prevent attacks coming from it against the Syrian forces and the Russian [Air Base Khmeimim], to ensure free road travel through this zone”.
The goals have not been achieved in more than a year, and with attacks from Idlib continuing “the Syria Army certainly has [the] full right to retaliate and suppress the terrorists”, Lavrov noted, adding that the requirement to defeat militants in Syria has been backed by the UN Security Council.
"[Russia] cannot prohibit the Syrian Army from executing the demands written in the UNSC resolutions, which call for an uncompromising fight against terrorism in all its forms," he stated.
Idlib is the last large stronghold of anti-government forces in Syria, with large parts of it dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the latest reincarnation of Al-Qaeda in Syria. In 2018, Ankara objected to a planned military offensive by the Syrian Army, saying it would result in a large loss of civilian life and an exodus of refugees from Idlib, which would trigger a major crisis in Turkey.
Instead, Ankara agreed to use the influence it has among some of the armed groups in Idlib to quell violence and eventually establish a lasting ceasefire, with Russia trying to do the same with Damascus and its forces. The arrangement however didn’t work out, and the Syrian Army started capturing villages and towns in Southern Idlib to fend off militants.
The advances brought Syrian troops into the close proximity of Turkish soldiers, which were deployed in the Syrian territory with a stated goal to observe the proposed ceasefire. On several occasions the two rivals clashed, resulting in deaths on both sides, with the latest episode being the bloodiest for Turkey so far.
Ankara demanded Damascus withdraws troops from the Syrian province, and threatened to launch a major military operation unless the ultimatum was not fulfilled by the end of February. After Thursday’s violence, Turkey called an emergency session of NATO, ramping up concerns over the possibility of a full-scale Turkish-Syrian war which could draw in foreign backers of the two nations.
Lavrov reiterated that Russia has every intention to de-escalate the conflict and ensure that Turkish soldiers are not at risk in Idlib.
Moscow said the deaths were the result of miscommunication, in particular Turkey failed to inform Russia about where it has boots on the ground in Syria. Thursday’s episode, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, happened because Syrian soldiers mingled with fighters of an armed group which posed a threat to Syrian forces.
“As soon as we learned what had happened, we asked our Syrian colleagues to pause fighting and did everything we could to arrange a safe evacuation of the wounded and retrieval of the dead Turkish soldiers to the Turkish territory,” the Russian minister added.
The presidents of Russia and Turkey spoke on the phone on Friday to discuss how tensions in Idlib could be defused. Moscow reiterated that fighting terrorism in Idlib has the highest priority in the current situation. The two leaders also agreed that the militaries of Russia and Turkey should establish better lines of communication with each other.