The recently established cordial relations between Turkey and Russia plunged into its first serious crisis since a rapprochement this summer after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest remarks about toppling the Syrian president stirred a fierce backlash from Moscow which demanded explanation over Turkish leader’s statement delivered a day before.
“We are there to bring justice. We are there to the end rule of the cruel Assad, who has been spreading state terror,” Reuters quoted Erdogan as saying in a speech on Tuesday. Erdogan, who often expressed his avowed enmity toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in personal terms, appeared to omit the name of Assad in his recent speeches concerning Syria, while in the past bashing of Assad was a daily routine for the Turkish leader.
In a speech in which he again targeted the U.N. for its abysmal inability to halt carnage in Syria, lamented about inertia of international community for lack of action to ease Turkey’s burden over the issue of refugees and unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo.
Under Russian air cover, forces loyal to Assad has renewed its push to definitively defeat rebellion in eastern Aleppo after encircling the rebel-held areas where more than 300,000 civilians are trapped. But the looming humanitarian crisis alarmed international community and Ankara reiterated its calls for an immediate halt to the regime operation. Turkey and Russia agreed on the need for cessation of hostilities and bringing aid to the besieged areas of Aleppo, Turkish presidential sources said on Wednesday.
But what disturbed Russia is that Erdogan, during his lengthy speech, cast ongoing Turkish military campaign in Syria as a mission to end Assad rule. It seemed a sharp departure from the stated goal of Turkish military endeavor, which seeks to eliminate Islamic State threat across the border in northern Syria. Turkey previously portrayed its military operation as part of the fight against terrorism, most notably against ISIS, which carried out a number of deadly attacks across Turkey, killing scores of civilians.
On Wednesday, Kremlin said Erdogan’s statement came as a surprise to Moscow and demanded a clarification over its content. “The announcement really came as new to us,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a press meeting.
“It is a very serious statement and one which differs from previous ones and with our understating of the situation, We hope that our Turkish partners will provide us with some kind of explanation about this,” Reuters quoted Peskov as saying.
Incongruence of views between both sides about the Syrian conflict were vividly on display once again. But the sense of surprise on the Russian side becomes palpably understandable given the fact that it was an accord between Turkey and Russia this summer that allowed Turkey to plunge into northern Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zacharove downplayed Erdogan’s remarks, saying that Russia only takes international agreements into consideration, not what is said by politicians.
Turkish-Russian relations suffered tremendous setback last year and ties almost broke down after Turkey downed a Russian warplane at its border. The jet crisis plunged bilateral relations to historic lows since the end of the Cold War and raised the prospect of a military confrontation between sides.
Erdogan showed political prudence this summer by offering an olive branch to Russia to mend the strained ties. Turkey’s plans in northern Syria was one of the factors that pushed Ankara for a reconciliation with Moscow before a military thrust to the Syria’s complicated theater where Russia is a key player on the ground.
In confirmation of that, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Wednesday that without a detente with Russia, Turkey could not have carried out its military operation in Syria easily.
“We could not have moved so comfortably in the Euphrates Shield operation if it weren’t for the positive developments with Russia,” Reuters quoted Canikli who spoke in a televised interview with TGRT television.
Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in August, the same month when Turkey sent tanks and special forces into northern Syria to push back ISIS militants from the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey also secured U.S. backing for the operation to clear 55-mile area of border of ISIS elements.
Turkey and Russia back different sides in the Syria’s prolonged conflict. Ankara scaled back from its earlier ambitious bid to remove Assad from power, but instead turned its attention to developments in southern side of the border.
To keep Syrian Kurdish expansion in check and push back ISIS appear two major purposes for Ankara at the moment. And Russia agrees on this scope of Turkish military mission as long as it does not target regime forces, do not threaten Russian objectives and stick with current small-scale presence.
But Erdogan’s recent statement came like a bombshell in Moscow as Russian leaders now question real intentions of Ankara and wants to make sure that Turkey will live up to its earlier pledges about its ambitions in northern Syria in line with the accord reached between Turks and Russians back in summer.
It remains to be unknown for the moment whether both sides will be able to overcome recent dispute or face a far serious crisis, whether Erdogan’s remarks are only slip of tongue, off-the-script type that sometime occurs.