OTTAWA — Russia repeatedly failed to inform Turkey of its bombing runs over Syria in the weeks leading to Tuesday’s downing of one of its jets by Turkish forces, Canada’s NATO ambassador says.
Kerry Buck said in an interview Wednesday that Canadian diplomats in Brussels and Vienna are working with various countries, including Russia, to strengthen communication protocols to prevent future incidents.
The ambassador said Russia needs to join western forces in attacking Islamic militants, instead of bombing ethnic Turkmen in Syria, whom she described as a moderate opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
She attended Tuesday’s emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, which was called by Turkey after it shot down a Russian plane that crossed into Turkish airspace near the Syrian border.
It was the first downing of a Russian plane by a NATO country in more than half a century and marked a dangerous escalation in the long-running tension between the Kremlin and the 28-country military alliance.
Buck heard recordings of Turkish attempts to warn the Russian jet away and said the Russian plane received 10 warnings over a five-minute period prior to its airspace violation.
She said NATO supports Turkey’s version of events, but wants to dial down the heated rhetoric the incident has spawned, including a warning of “significant consequences” from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There is a need for more transparency to reduce risk,” Buck told The Canadian Press by telephone from Brussels. “In this case, we understand there was no Russian response, so we need to focus on prompting parties to use the channels properly.”
Buck explained that there are a number of channels in place between the West and Russia. They include a U.S.-Russia memorandum of understanding that applies to all members of the American-led coalition — which currently includes six Canadian fighter jets — that is bombing Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S.-Russia memo deals with safety procedures with the coalition, covering all sorties, she added.
The Liberal government has said Canada will withdraw those fighter jets in favour of putting more trainers on the ground to assist northern Iraqi forces fighting the militants.
Buck said there are also bilateral channels — a direct, military-to-military dialogue that includes Turkey.
“The problem is that Russia has been, unfortunately … in selective compliance or non-compliance with a lot of these channels we’ve seen. So in this instance, they apparently didn’t respond to the Turks and it led to some very, very serious consequences.”
One Russian pilot was killed by militants on the ground after bailing out, but another crew member was rescued in good condition by Syrian commandos. A Russian marine, who was part of the rescue effort, was also killed.
NATO has been grappling with Russia’s non-compliance since Oct. 5. That’s when the North Atlantic Council held another special meeting, which Turkey requested because it had information on Russian airspace violations, Buck said.
“It was for a defined period of time, relatively limited, but very, very serious, to fly over somebody’s air space without giving them any kind of warning,” said Buck.
“In that instance as well, Russia apparently didn’t respond to Turkish hailing frequencies so that prompted the Turks over the course of the last month to send some very clear messages … to Russia about the need to respect their transparency obligations.”
Moving forward, said Buck, it is important that those military connections with Russia remain in place.
“You need military- to-military co-operation to avoid incidents like this,” she said.
“But it’s a work in progress . . . and it’s been in progress for a while, to be frank because, as I said there’s some serious issues of non-compliance.”
NATO also questions why Russia has chosen to focus its bombing efforts on Syrian territory close to the Turkish border.
“It’s in an area where there is no known Daesh, ISIL, or Jabhat al-Nusra groups operating,” said Buck, referring to the two names for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as well as the al-Qaida-linked militant group active in Syria.
She said the Russians are bombing Syria’s Turkmen minority, which has links to Turkey.
“It’s important that Moscow make defeating Daesh or ISIL more of a priority.”
Speaking in London, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the tensions between Ankara and Moscow are a cause for concern.
“And that’s why the Canadian ambassador to NATO is engaged with her counterparts and ensuring that we are de-escalating the situation in diplomatic means though direct communications, as much as possible,” Trudeau said.