Syria Tells Russia It Will Force Both Turkey and U.S. Military Out ‘By All Means’
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has informed a visiting Russian delegation that his country was prepared to force out any uninvited guests, especially the armed forces of Turkey and the United States, which themselves recently fell on opposing ends of an eight-year civil war.
Assad met Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin and other visiting officials from Moscow to discuss “the situation in Syria, especially the Jazeera region”—referring to the country’s northeast, across the Euphrates river—”and the Turkish aggression against it,” according to the Syrian leader’s office.
Last week, Turkey mobilized Syrian rebels to storm the region and defeat Kurdish forces that participated in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) but were viewed as terrorists by Ankara.
“The current and future stage must be focused on stopping the aggression, and the withdrawal of all Turkish, American and other illegal forces from all Syrian territories, considering them occupation forces according to international law and conventions,” Assad said. “The Syrian people have the right to resist them by all means available.”
Both Turkey and the U.S., along with some of its other regional allies, lent support to the 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising against Assad, who received backing from Russia, Iran and allied militias. As the opposition grew increasingly Islamist and ISIS militants spread across the country, the U.S. later realigned itself with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a force consisting largely of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish separatist group that Turkey links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Rival campaigns led by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian military largely defeated ISIS. Turkey, meanwhile, launched two major incursions into northern Syria, targeting Pentagon-backed YPG forces using formerly CIA-backed rebels that lost ground elsewhere to the pro-government campaign.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long threatened a larger operation intended to secure the entirety of the border with Syria and came up with the idea of a roughly 20-mile “safe zone” to expel the YPG and resettle scores of mainly Sunni Muslim Arab refugees that fled the war. President Donald Trump had signaled a desire to withdraw from Syria, but his administration also sought to defuse Turkish-Kurdish tensions by establishing a U.S. military presence at the border.
Erdogan grew impatient as safe zone talks failed and, following a call with his U.S. counterpart, the Turkish leader began the operation as Trump announced a withdrawal of troops embedded alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces across northern and eastern Syria. Left without an ally, the majority-Kurdish group sided with the Syrian government.
Assad and the PKK have a complicated history, and this has played out in the shifting relations between Damascus and the YPG throughout the war in Syria. Both factions have a common enemy in ISIS, other Islamist insurgents and Turkey, but the central government does not recognize Kurdish aspirations for self-rule and has long emphasized the country’s Arab character.
With the U.S. withdrawal, however, Syrian soldiers and allied Russian forces have assumed a number of their positions. As this united front clashed with the Ankara-backed opposition, Moscow warned it would “not allow” direct confrontation between the Syrian and Turkish armies, even as Assad’s officials vowed to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
During Friday’s meeting with Assad, the Syrian leader’s office said that the Russian delegation expressed its “rejection of any step or action that violates Syria’s sovereignty and further complicates the situation and affects efforts to end the war, which depends first and foremost on the elimination of the remaining terrorist outposts, and the restoration of control over all Syrian territory, especially all of the border regions.”
Washington has come to condemn the Turkey-led attack, threatening sanctions, tariffs and the suspension of $100 billion-trade deal talks. After sending a delegation to meet Erdogan, the U.S. side announced a “ceasefire” Thursday, though the Turkish side referred to it as a “pause,” and the Syrian Democratic Forces suggested it only applied to a narrow area between Kobani and Tal Abyad.
Violence, however, appeared to linger, with activists reporting cross-border clashes well after the deal was announced. Trump said on Twitter Friday that he spoke with Erdogan and was told “there was minor sniper and mortar fire that was quickly eliminated,”
“He very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work. Likewise, the Kurds want it, and the ultimate solution, to happen,” Trump tweeted. “Too bad there wasn’t this thinking years ago. Instead, it was always held together with very weak bandaids, & in an artificial manner.”