In a statement multiple media outlets have deemed a backpedaling of his admission that he seeks to topple Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clarified that his troops in Syria are only there to target “terror organizations.”
His statements come after accusing Assad of “terroriz[ing] with state terror” in a speech in which he claimed the goal of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield was the ultimate overthrow of Assad.
“The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is no country or person but only terror organizations,” Erdogan said on Thursday. “No one should doubt this issue that we have uttered over and over, and no one should comment on it in another fashion or try to [misrepresent its meaning].”
The Kurdish outlet Rudaw has described this clarification as a “retraction of his previous claim” that Turkish troops are in Syria exclusively to remove Assad. In his comments Tuesday, however, Erdogan referred to Assad as one who “terrorizes,” if not a “terrorist,” and has repeatedly refused to treat Assad as the legitimate head of state of Syria.
“Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil… We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror,” he said Tuesday, adding Turkish troops did not enter Syria “for any other reason” and had no interest in expanding Turkey’s borders.
“In my estimation, nearly 1 million people have died in Syria. These deaths are still continuing without exception for children, women and men. Where is the United Nations? What is it doing? Is it in Iraq? No. We preached patience but could not endure,” Erdogan protested earlier this week.
Erdogan has previously referred to Assad as “a more advanced terrorist” than ISIS, while Assad has referred to the “war against Erdogan” as a “war against terrorists.”
The Kremin, Assad’s most reliable ally on the globe, appeared alarmed by Erdogan’s statements on Wednesday. “It is a very serious statement and one which differs from previous ones and with our understanding of the situation. We hope that our Turkish partners will provide us with some kind of explanation about this,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said, adding, “this announcement really came as news to us.”
Since those statements, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. According to Turkish state outlet Anadolu Agency, the two agreed “on the need to provide humanitarian aid” to Syria, but little else, including a plan to actually provide humanitarian aid.
“Lavrov added that both Russia and Turkey ‘should make sure [the flow of] humanitarian aid keeps going on. We remain in cooperation on this issue,'” Anadolu reports.
The Anadolu report reiterates Erdogan’s assertion that Turkish troops are in Syria to overthrow Assad.
Lavrov also denied Turkey’s claim that either Russian or Syrian warplanes conducted an airstrike on Turkish troops, killing three, though Russia, Syria, and the Western U.S.-led coalition are the only actors with the air capacity to conduct such a strike. The U.S. coalition has been cooperating with Turkey in Syria and has been nominally opposed to Assad’s continued rule.