Ankara: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey’s military operation in Syria was against “terror” groups, appearing to row back on his comments saying it was targeting President Bashar Al Assad.
“The operation’s target is not against a country or a person but against terrorist organisations only,” Erdogan told local neighbourhood chiefs in Ankara.
“No one should have any doubts or take our statements to mean something else. Even if Turkey is left alone, it will continue its fight against terrorist organisations.”
Turkey launched its unprecedented operation in northern Syria in August, providing tanks and aerial support to opposition fighters as they retake territory from the Daesh group.
Erdogan had on Tuesday said Turkey launched the offensive to “put an end to the rule of the tyrant Al Assad who carries out state terror, not for anything else”.
The next day, Al Assad’s close ally Moscow which is providing key military support to Damascus, demanded an explanation.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan’s comments did not reflect his previous remarks nor Russia’s “understanding of the situation”.
The Syrian foreign ministry also denounced the comments, saying they showed “clearly that the flagrant Turkish aggression against the Syrian territory is only the result of the ambitions and the illusions of an extremist despot”.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Syria three times on the phone this week including on Wednesday night. No mention has been made by either side over whether they discussed Erdogan’s remarks.
Moscow and Ankara have become closer since ties, which had broken down after Turkey shot down a Russian plane on the Syrian border in November last year, were restored this summer.
Experts say rebels supported by Ankara are a varied collective of different Syrian opposition brigades rather than a single organised force.
So far, they have been retaken Daesh territory including Jarabulus, Al Rai and the symbolically important town of Dabiq.
Although the offensive was targeting jihadists, it has the secondary purpose of stopping the advance of Syrian Kurdish groups: the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Forces (YPG) militia.
“We cannot allow terrorist organisations like Daesh, PYD/YPG to be within distance of throwing javelins so close to us,” Erdogan said.
Ankara views the YPG/PYD as sister organisations of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.