19 September 2016
by Phillip Coorey

Malcolm Turnbull expresses regret for Australia's role in Syrian deaths

Malcolm Turnbull has expressed "regret" for any role Australia may have had in the accidental killing of 62 Syrian soldiers and wounding more than 100.

He did so as he rejected claims by Russia that the US and her allies were intentionally supporting Islamic State.

As the incident prompted a furious argument between Washington and Moscow and threatened the carefully brokered ceasefire, Mr Turnbull confirmed Australia planes had been part of the ill-fated sortie which the US has attributed to an "intelligence failure".

"As soon as the Coalition commanders were advised by the Russian command in the region that Syrian forces had been affected, the sortie was discontinued," he said.

"We regret the loss of life and injury to any Syrian personnel affected."

Mr Turnbull would not say how many Australian aircraft were involved in the September 17 incident and whether any had fired ordnance which killed the Syrians, who are allied to Russia.

"Our rules of engagement are to target Daesh, or ISIS," he said.

Mr Turnbull alluded that there had been an intelligence error, saying the area of operations with multiple nations and local participants was "very complex".

The incident caused heated scenes at the United Nations Security Council in New York on Sunday when Russia called an emergency session to condemn the raid and accuse the US of aiding Islamic State.

America's UN ambassador Samantha Power was both incredulous and furious, given multiple previous Russian transgressions and atrocities in Syria, including the deliberate bombing of hospitals.

She described the Russia move as a "stunt", "grandstanding" and a "cynical and hypocritical' attempt at "cheap point scoring".

"If we determine that we did, indeed, strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention. And we of course regret the loss of life," she said.

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin walked out of the UN meeting to protest Ms Power's outburst and said he had witnessed nothing like it in his 40 years as a diplomat.

Mr Turnbull tried not to take sides but did suggest the Russians were being hypocrites by taking umbrage, given their track record.

"Those contradictions are obvious," he said.

"For our part, you can point out those contradictions, there's obviously a lot of politics involved in this.

"[But] what we are really seeking do is rather than making political points, is achieve a lasting peace in that very, very complicated conflict."

Mr Turnbull suggested better coordination between the superpowers may help.

"Clearly coordination is desirable," he said.

"You'll find over the next little while no doubt arguments or issues about why there wasn't more co-ordination or who was meant to be advising who."

Mr Turnbull said it remained to be seen whether the Syrian ceasefire would be jeopardised.

Also in New York, Mr Turnbull said it was too early to speculate who was behind a terror bomb blast in the neighbourhood of Chelsea on Sunday and what was the motive.

Mr Turnbull said it was important people were not cowed by the attack.

"We defy them by going about our lives in the normal way."

New York Governor Mario Cuomo ordered a further 1000 police and National Guard into Manhattan as world leaders continued to arrive for this week's UN General Assembly.