Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reverted to a years-old explanation for his military’s invasion of Syria on Tuesday, insisting that Turkish forces will be in the country “until the people are free.”
Throughout the past four years of Turkish military activity in Syria, Erdogan has gone back and forth between claiming that Turkish troops are in the country to fight terrorism and asserting that they are there to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan has also repeatedly called Assad a “terrorist,” making unclear if his insistence on fighting terrorism is limited to opposition to groups like the U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization, or to the complete overthrow of the current Syrian government.
Turkish forces in Syria have traditionally fought alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Sunni coalition against Assad, and its allies, which include several militias with ties to the jihadist organization al-Qaeda. Erdogan has faced multiple accusations for years of also supporting the Islamic State jihadist group, which the YPG joined forces with the United States to destroy in its “capital,” Raqqa.
Erdogan reportedly discussed Syria on Tuesday in response to Assad hosting a “People’s Assembly” election this week, one that the Assad regime itself suggested did not represent the will of the Syrian people due to extremely low turnout. Syria is still in the midst of an ongoing civil war that makes nationwide voting near impossible. The regime explicitly excluded war refugees, over six million Syrian citizens.
“In these days, they are holding elections in Syria, so-called elections. Can there be such elections? Where are the countries that claim to be democratically advanced?” Erdogan asked, according to the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.
“We will continue to stay in this country until our thousand-year neighbor and brother, the Syrian people, reach freedom, peace, and security,” Erdogan asserted.
Erdogan reportedly did not name Assad personally or specify what he wished to see the Syrian people “free” from, either the Assad regime or his perennial enemies in the YPG. His statement echoed his first such remarks following official Turkish military action in Syria in 2016, where he specified that Turkish troops would not leave Syrian until Assad no longer remained in power.
“Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror,” Erdogan said in 2016, adding that Turkey was not in Syria for “any other reason.”
Erdogan’s remarks were a deviation at the time from his government’s line that Turkey had entered Syria to fight the Islamic State, though it also had openly opposed Assad in the Syrian Civil War. A year before the invasion, the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet had published a story revealing evidence that Turkey was secretly shipping weapons to the FSA, which has ties to Sunni jihadist groups. Erdogan responded by arresting the newspaper’s then-editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, and the senior editors responsible for the piece. Dündar, later the subject of an assassination attempt, has since fled Turkey for Germany. Cumhuriyet remains the last anti-Erdogan publication operating in the country at a national level.
By December 2016, Erdogan was claiming that Turkish troops were targeting “only terror organizations” in Syria.
“The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is no country or person but only terror organizations,” Erdogan asserted, referring to the name of the Turkish invasion at the time. “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].”
Skeptics noted that Erdogan repeatedly referred to Assad as a “terrorist.”
“Assad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism. It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?” Erdogan said almost exactly a year after his 2016 statements.
While Turkey has maintained a low level of military activity across the border since then, it recently escalated actions there with renewed airstrikes in March targeting Assad soldiers. As Turkey has increased its attacks on Assad, Syrian state media has levied more severe accusations against Assad. This week, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Assad’s state media outlet, accused Erdogan of participating in “the black criminal networks that seek to traffic in the human organs” of Syrian refugees.
SANA also claimed Erdogan was helping traffic Syrian girls into Turkish marriages, citing unnamed “human rights organizations.”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency has, in turn, published propaganda pieces asserting that Turkey is offering humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians, including helping restore basic government services like cleaning public areas and garbage collecting.