Turkish President Erdogan’s admission that the ultimate objective of Operation Euphrates Shield is the overthrow of Syrian President Assad has provoked fury in Russia and a very strong reaction from the Russians.
Yesterday Dmitry Peskov, President’s Putin’s spokesman, made Russia’s anger very clear
“The statement was indeed news, this is a very serious statement. [It] is in discord with the previous [statements] in general and with our understanding of the situation. We hope that in the near future there will be explanations on this from our Turkish partners. Before making any judgments, we expect that this position will be clarified.”
Peskov also made it clear that Erdogan never said anything to Putin about overthrowing Assad during their telephone conversation on 26th November 2016.
The Kremlin’s account of that conversation was incidentally extremely short even by the Kremlin’s standards, merely saying
“The two leaders continued their exchange of opinions on the situation in Syria.”
It is in fact known that what happened was that Erdogan telephoned Putin to complain about the alleged Syrian air strike on Turkish troops north of Al-Bab, which the Turks say killed and wounded several Turkish soldiers.
The terse Kremlin account of the conversation suggests that there was a furious row, with Putin reminding Erdogan that unlike Russian troops, who are in Syria legally at the invitation of Syria’s legitimate government, Turkish troops are present in Syria illegally and contrary to the wishes of Syria’s legitimate government, and that for this reason the Russians are not in a position to help them.
Erdogan’s comments about the Turkish troops being in Syria to overthrow President Assad were almost certainly provoked by this row with Putin. It seems Erdogan came away smarting from his conversation with Putin and – as is his character – tried to save face by saying more than it was wise of him to say.
The result was another furious telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan yesterday. The Kremlin’s account is again short and terse
“The President of Russia expressed condolences over the children killed in a fire in a girls’ dormitory in the city of Adana.
The presidents discussed current issues of Russian-Turkish relations, including bilateral contacts at different levels in the near future.
They continued their detailed exchange of views on Syria, including the developments in Aleppo.”
However on this occasion we have more information about the call from Putin’s aide Yury Ushakov
“I can only say that a telephone conversation between our president and Erdogan took place yesterday, and the topic [of Turkey’s presence in Syria] was addressed. Yes, he [Erdogan] gave an explanation.”
Today Erdogan has made public what that “explanation” was. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports him telling a meeting of village elders at his Presidential palace in Ankara
“The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is no country or person but only terror organisations. 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].”
In other words Erdogan has backed down. After his conversation with Putin he has now been forced to deny the truth of what he said just the day before yesterday: that he is seeking to overthrow President Assad. Instead he is once again being forced to pretend that the objective of Operation Euphrates Shield is not the overthrow of President Assad but the defeat of ISIS and of the Kurdish militia the YPG, both of which he calls “terrorist organisations”.
In fact the meaning of Erdogan’s previous comments of the day before yesterday was perfectly clear. Moreover they undoubtedly spoke the truth – as Hurriyet admits. As I have repeatedly said, there is no doubt Erdogan remains personally committed to the overthrow of President Assad. Not only his comments but all his actions confirm as much.
The fact that Erdogan has now been forced publicly to retract on what he said – which was true – and that he has been forced by Putin to do so publicly – must therefore be doubly humiliating to him. It shows how frightened of Putin Erdogan is, and who is the dominant one of the two.
As for the Russians, there is no doubt they know what Erdogan’s true intentions in Syria are. By forcing him to deny them in public, they have however demonstrated the extent of their ascendancy over him. That will make it easier for them to keep him in check and under control in future.