Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that his goal in Syria was to end the rule of Bashar Assad has caused consternation in the Kremlin, with officials saying it contradicted previous assurances and was out of sync with Moscow’s take on the situation.
“The statement was indeed news, this is a very serious statement. [It] is in discord with the previous [statements] in general and with our understanding of the situation,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.
“We hope that in the near future there will be explanations on this from our Turkish partners,” he said, adding that Russia is the only country whose armed forces are in Syria on a legitimate basis – at the direct request of the Syrian authorities.
Answering a question as to whether Erdogan’s comments would affect the relations between Moscow and Ankara, Peskov stressed that Turkey is Moscow’s partner and therefore will have to explain its stance before the Russian authorities make any judgments.
“Before making any judgments, we expect that this position will be clarified,” Peskov said.
President Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, discussed the situation in Syria in a telephone call on Wednesday, the Kremlin’s press service reported.
“There was an extensive exchange of opinions concerning the Syrian question, including the situation in Aleppo,” the service said in a statement.
“A number of urgent issues regarding Russia-Turkey relations have been raised, including upcoming bilateral contacts on various levels.”
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on whether Erdogan had clarified his earlier statement about Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Tuesday, Erdogan said that Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria, which was launched on August 24, has been aimed at toppling the Syrian president.
“We entered [Syria] to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason,” the Turkish president said at the first Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium in Istanbul, as quoted by Hurriyet daily.
Erdogan said that Turkey has no territorial claims in Syria, but instead wants to hand over power to the Syrian population, adding that Ankara is seeking to restore “justice.”
Turkey has been deploying ground troops and air power to northern parts of Syria, a neighboring country, initially identifying its goal as retaking areas held by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) from terrorists, as well as battling armed Kurdish units in northern Syria, which Turkey claims are aiding the outlawed Kurdish insurgency on Turkey’s own soil.
The operation began in August with liberating the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, then the joint Turkish forces, the coalition and Syrian opposition groups continued the offensive against Islamists in the southwest. The campaign has been widely criticized both by the Syrian Kurds and Damascus, who have accused Ankara of violating Syria’s territorial integrity by crossing its border uninvited.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova noted that Erdogan’s statement regarding Assad was made “off the record,” while Moscow prefers to draw conclusions from official public statements and will wait for them.
“In the context of settling the Syrian crisis and in the context of bilateral relations with Turkey, Russia proceeds from the agreements that we have, which were achieved at the official level and in direct contacts with the Turkish leadership,”Zakharova noted, adding that Moscow “proceed[s] from the existing agreements and liabilities of countries, and not from quotes that may have been misinterpreted or extracted from the context. It remains to be seen.”
There has not been any official reaction to Erdogan’s comments from the Syrian government yet. However, according to SANA news agency, citing a source within the Syrian Defense Ministry, this statement by Erdogan puts “an end to his lies.”
“Erdogan’s statements about the objectives of the Turkish aggression against Syria put an end to his lies,” SANA quoted the source as saying. “These statements clearly reveal that the blatant Turkish aggression on Syrian territory is only a result of the ambitions and illusions that nourish the thought of this overwhelming Muslim Brotherhood extremist who has made Turkey a base for terrorist groups, which [shatter] stability and security in Syria and Iraq, and should be the first to take responsibility for the suffering of innocent people caused by terrorist crimes committed [with] Turkey’s support.”