On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his country’s armed forces were not just in Syria to battle ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists (and, uncomfortably for U.S. policymakers, America’s Kurdish allies) but were on a mission to overthrow the Syrian regime.
“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 in the end and had to enter Syria together with the Free Syrian Army,” said Erdogan, as reported by Hurriyet Daily News. The Free Syrian Army is a moderate rebel group.
“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 continued, insisting his forces were not in Syria for “any other reason.”
The Daily Sabah notes that Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Syria during two telephone calls last week. Since Russia launched a massive military operation to secure Bashar Assad in power, Putin would presumably have been interested in anything Erdogan had to say about toppling the regime in Damascus, and probably would not have kept quiet about it.
Erdogan’s calls to Putin came two days after the event widely seen as changing Turkey’s posture in Syria, the death of four Turkish soldiers in an airstrike Ankara blamed on the Syrian regime. The Turkish troops were conducting a joint operation with Syrian rebels at the time.
“It is clear that some people are not happy with this battle Turkey has been fighting against Daesh. This attack will surely have a retaliation,” declared Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim after the airstrike on Thursday.
Turkey claims Russian officials have confirmed it was not a Russian jet that bombed the Turkish soldiers near the ISIS-occupied city of al-Bab, leaving the Syrian military the only likely suspect for the bombing. Syria has expressed displeasure over the presence of Turkish troops near al-Bab, and has threatened to respond to further incursions “decisively and with force.”
Syrian officials would not confirm or deny whether their aircraft hit the Turkish positions, but it didn’t help ease tensions between the two countries when the Syrian government blamed Turkey for the death of its soldiers.
“If the Turks want to complain they should complain to themselves. What happened was inside the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Saturday, in the first public comments a Syrian official has made on the bombing.
As the Associated Press noted last week, Turkey has said it’s helping Syrian rebel forces attack al-Bab because taking the city would put pressure on the ISIS capital of Raqqa, creating what Erdogan called “a region there that is free of terror.”
Most observers suspect that Turkey’s real priority is to create a region free of Kurds. Another town Erdogan has talked about capturing, Manbij, is currently held by Kurdish forces, not ISIS.
A Reuters analysis on Tuesday suggested Turkey is pulling its allies out of Aleppo, where the Syrian-Russian alliance is throwing a brutal haymaker punch at the rebellion, in order to secure the no-Kurds buffer zone along the Turkish border that Erdogan most eagerly desires. This could explain why the reaction to Erdogan technically declaring war on the Assad regime has brought such a muted response. What he called for on Tuesday is quite different than what he appears willing to settle for.