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Erdogan backtracks on call to 'end rule of Assad' after Kremlin protest

Turkish president says his forces are in Syria to fight IS, after Russia urged him to explain comments on Bashar al-Assad
Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday said he had sent Turkish forces to Syria to tackle the Islamic State, a day after Russia urged him to explain earlier comments they were there to "end the rule of the cruel" Bashar al-Assad.

"The aim of the Euphrates Shield operation is against terror, not against anyone or any country,” the Turkish president said 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."

The statement came after the Kremlin demanded an "explanation" from Erdogan over his comments on Tuesday.

"We are there to bring justice. We are there to end the rule of the cruel Assad, who has been spreading state terror," Erdogan said.

Those remarks prompted a flurry of diplomatic traffic between Ankara and Moscow as both sides looked to prevent another breakdown in ties. 

It was just this summer that both countries began repairing ties which were severed after Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border on 24 November 2015. 

Erdogan had a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the evening of 30 November to discuss developments in Syria, according to the office of the Turkish presidency.

The phone call marks the third such communication between the two leaders since 25 November.

Wednesday’s phone conversation followed a six-hour meeting of Turkey’s national security council, where developments in Aleppo were also on the agenda.

“It was stressed that the attacks carried out by the regime on civilian targets including hospitals have reached the stage of crimes against humanity, which require immediate action,” read a statement issued by the council. 

Turkey’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Aleppo were also discussed during the meeting.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday said the bloodshed in Syria had to stop and that an urgent solution was needed.

He also said Moscow was doing its best to protect civilians and provide humanitarian aid but was obliged to distinguish between civilians, moderate rebels and Al-Nusra militants.

“We will continue to cooperate for peace in Syria. We will continue our operations in east Aleppo. We will continue to help civilians in the area. Our humanitarian assistance will continue. We need to root out the moderate opposition from Al-Nusra,” said Lavrov. 

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Ankara and Moscow had their differences over Assad but were agreed on the need to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria and a political process.

“Our president’s remarks on Assad are clear. We don’t have to agree with Russia on that. We cooperate with some countries over Syria and Russia is one of the countries we cooperate with,” said Cavusoglu. “Without a political solution something else will replace Daesh tomorrow. We need to dry out the swamp. All of Syria needs to be cleared of Daesh, Nusra, the PYD/PKK.” 

Coalition searches for missing Turkish soldiers

Meanwhile, a commander for the US-led anti-IS coalition said it was helping Turkey find two of its soldiers that were reported missing on Tuesday. 

The Turkish military said it lost contact on Tuesday with two of its soldiers deployed in northern Syria, although it stopped short of confirming an Islamic State claim that the group had kidnapped the pair.

The Turkish military and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels launched an incursion into northern Syria on 24 August to clear a large swath of territory along the Turkish border of IS and Syrian-Kurdish forces, which Ankara says pose a direct threat to Turkey’s security.

IS's Amaq news agency earlier said that IS fighters had captured two Turkish soldiers near the village of Dana west of al-Bab in the Aleppo countryside.

"Turkey is an important ally to us as a NATO partner and as a member of the coalition, and therefore we are supporting Turkey in trying to recover their two individuals," said Rupert Jones, a British major general and deputy commander for the US-led coalition against IS, AFP reported.