Turkey Rejects Russian Claims in Georgia, Challenging Assad in Syria

Turkey and Russia have been on opposing sides of the civil war in Syria since the conflict broke out in 2011, with Moscow the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey pressing for his ouster.

The Foreign Ministry of Turkey condemned Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad Wednesday for what it labeled a “clear violation” of international law in recognizing the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway regions invaded by Russia in 2008.

The dispute over the sovereignty of Georgia is the latest in years of disagreements between Assad and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have both referred to each other as “terrorists.” It also creates a new rift in the increasingly complicated relationship between Turkey and Russia, who have deep financial interests in maintaining friendly relations but have backed opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War.

Assad’s regime announced Tuesday that it had “agreed to exchange recognition and set up Embassy-level diplomatic relations” with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as two separate sovereign states.

“In order to reflect the common will in developing relations between the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia … the three countries have agreed on exchanging recognition and setting up Embassy-level diplomatic relations,” a statement in Syria’s official state news outlet, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), read.

“The decision recently taken by the Syrian regime to recognize the so-called independence of Georgia’s regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to establish diplomatic relations with these regions is an open violation of international law,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement attributed to spokesman Hami Aksoy Wednesday. “As it was emphasized on many occasions, Turkey supports the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia.”

Russia invaded both regions in 2008, claiming to do so in defense of the Russian-speaking populations there. The ensuing war triggered a flurry of panicked American media appearances by Putin foe and then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili but, while the conflict ultimately subsided, the fighting forced nearly 200,000 people in both regions out of their homes and resulted in a drop in the ethnic Georgian population of the region of 75 percent, according to the prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an “integration” treaty with both breakaway regions that granted Russia the right to control the regions’ national security and borders.

Syria’s recognition of the breakaway regions appears to be an attempt by the Assad regime to ingratiate itself further with Russia, which has invested heavily in ensuring Assad remains the dictator of that country throughout the civil war.

Despite Turkey’s significant opposition to Assad, it has agreed to several plans with Russia to “deepen coordination” on the battlefield, ostensibly against jihadist terrorists that have taken advantage of the chaos to find a place for themselves. Russia and Turkey have also signed a nuclear power agreement in which Russia will build the nation’s first nuclear power plant – or, as Putin described it in April, Russia is “founding Turkey’s nuclear sector.”

The economic and diplomatic incentives have partially concealed Erdogan’s promise that the Turkish military invaded Syria “to end the rule of the tyrant Assad,” and not for “any other reason,” which is directly at odds with Russia’s interests in the country.

That dispute became overt again in April, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that he expected the Turkish military to withdraw from northern Syria as soon as possible and hand it over to Assad. Turkey invaded the northern region of Afrin, part of Syrian Kurdistan, to attack the U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), and took it over with the YPG withdrew east. The YPG have been America’s most consistent ally in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) and played a key role in the liberation of the terrorist group’s “capital,” Raqqa. They have never been affiliated with Assad and seek to establish a sovereign Kurdish nation, though they have avoided clashes with the Syrian military.

Erdogan responded furiously to Russia’s suggestion that Afrin, which Assad did not control before the Turkish operation against the Kurds, should go to Damascus.

“This is a wrong approach. We know very well to whom we will return Afrin. We will determine the time. That is up to us, not to Mr. Lavrov,” Erdogan said.

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