Moscow demands answers after Erdogan vows to oust 'tyrant' Assad
Adem Altan (AFP/File)
The Kremlin on Wednesday demanded an explanation after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara intervened in the Syria conflict solely to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish forces are pressing on with a three-month operation inside Syria in support of anti-Assad forces, while Russia is the chief ally of the Syrian president in the conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011.
At the same time, Turkey and Russia have also been working hard to improve relations after clinching a reconciliation deal in June to repair ties brought to a historic low by Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet in November 2015.
Erdogan had said at a meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday: "We went in there to put an end to the rule of the tyrant Assad who carries out state terror, not for anything else."
His comments came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to meet Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Turkish resort of Alanya on Thursday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists he hoped that "clarification will come shortly from our Turkish partners".
Peskov said Erdogan's comment "is not in harmony with previous statements" and "not in harmony with our understanding of the situation".
'Flagrant Turkish aggression'
The Syrian foreign ministry said Erdogan's statement "shows clearly that the flagrant Turkish aggression against the Syrian territory is only the result of the ambitions and the illusions of an extremist despot".
"The leaders, the army and the Syrian people will not allow this arrogant despot to interfere in their affairs," it said in a statement.
Turkey is waging the operation against Islamic State (IS) jihadists and also Kurdish militia to back pro-Ankara rebels, in an unprecedented military incursion.
There has so far been no indication of clashes with Assad's forces or that Turkey plans any offensive against regime-held territory.
Russia has generally steered clear of any sharp criticism of the Turkish offensive.
But the Turkish army accused Damascus last week of launching an air strike that killed four Turkish soldiers in Syria, the first time it has made such a claim during the incursion.
Erdogan has repeatedly pushed for the ouster of Assad as the only solution to end the Syrian war and had, until recently, vehemently criticized Russia's military support for his forces and even accused President Vladimir Putin of war crimes.
But since the deal to normalize ties between Turkey and Russia, Ankara has been muted in its criticism of Russia's actions -- in particular its backing for Assad forces in the devastating battle for Aleppo.
Peskov stressed Wednesday that "Turkey is our partner" and said Putin and Erdogan are "in very intensive and confidential contact".
Erdogan and Putin discussed the Syria conflict by phone on Saturday for the second time in just over 24 hours.
Peskov said Erdogan "did not make such statements (on Assad) during his contacts with our president."
Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Russian government-linked Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told Interfax news agency it was against Turkey's interests to take a categorical position on Assad.
"Since Ankara is highly interested in cooperation with Moscow -- as the Turkish side stresses constantly at various levels -- that would run counter to this."
"The various players see Moscow's actions in Syria differently, but as a result of those actions, Assad's position has seriously strengthened," he said.
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