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US blames Russia for killing of Turkish soldiers in Idlib

It is the first official statement to blame Russia for the attacks [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2020

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Nearly 60 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria's war-ravaged Idlib province since February.
The United States for the first time Tuesday held Russia responsible for the deaths of dozens of Turkish troops in Syria as it vowed accountability.

An airstrike last month in the war-ravaged Idlib region killed 34 Turkish soldiers. Although Ankara blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and reached a new ceasefire deal with Moscow in the wake of the attack, speculation was rife that Russia had directed the strike.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing new sanctions on Syrian officials, placed blame on Russia, which along with Iran has backed Assad in his bloody quest to crush opposition to his regime.

"We believe Russia has killed dozens of Turkish military personnel in the course of their military operation," Pompeo told reporters, without naming a specific incident.

"We stand with our NATO ally Turkey and will consider additional measures that support Turkey at the end of the violence," he said.

Analysts widely doubted that Assad's rundown air force could effectively hit Turkish forces but until now the United States had steered clear of blaming Russia, mindful of official statements by Ankara.

After the killings, Turkey killed dozens of Syrian regime troops in retaliation but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow to negotiate a ceasefire with his counterpart Vladimir Putin that includes joint Russian-Turkish patrols.

At least 59 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib before a ceasefire was reached.

Idlib has been the last major battleground between forces loyal to Assad against rebel and extremist forces in the region, some of whom are backed by Turkey. 

The offensive has intensified the humanitarian crisis of Syria's brutal nine-year civil war with close to one million people fleeing in the dead of winter over the last three months.

Pompeo announced new sanctions against Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayoub, accusing him of destroying an earlier truce through the offensive.

"His deliberate actions since December 2019 have prevented a ceasefire from taking hold inside Syria," Pompeo said.

Under the sanctions, any US assets of Ayoub are frozen and the United States can prosecute anyone for financial transactions with him.

US officials had earlier pointed to the deaths of Turkish troops as proof that Ankara should be cautious about building relations with Russia.

Turkey has defied warnings from its NATO alliance and was kicked out of the US F-35 program after it went ahead and bought the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, although it has not yet activated it.

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