Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday slammed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov‘s comments that the Syrian town of Afrin, seized from Kurdish militia by Ankara, should be handed over to Damascus.
“This is a very wrong approach,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the official Anadolu news agency. “We know very well to whom we will give Afrin. We will give Afrin back to its inhabitants when the time comes but we will determine the time, not Mr. Lavrov.”
#Erdogan responds to #Russia's FM Lavrov who asked of #Turkey to hand over #Afrin to #Syria regime, says Lavrov was wrong and only #Turkey to decide whom & when to turn over Afrin, adds #Afrin residents will take over the city. pic.twitter.com/GP7SRaRvpz
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) April 10, 2018
The comments were among the toughest yet by Erdogan against Moscow since Turkey and Russia formed a fragile alliance aimed at bringing peace to Syria, a long-time ally of Moscow.
Turkey in January launched an operation into Syria to root out the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin enclave and drove the group from the city on March 18. Many analysts said at the time the Turkish offensive could not have gone ahead without consulting Russia because it required the Turkish air force to enter Syrian airspace. Russian air support for Damascus has been a keen factor in driving back rebel forces.
At a press conference on Monday, Lavrov said the simplest way to normalise the situation in Afrin would be for the territory to be “returned to the control of the Syrian government.” He noted that Erdogan believed that the United States had started to “flirt” with Kurdish militia was a threat to Turkey’s interests. But he added: “Erdogan never said Turkey wanted to occupy Afrin.”
Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides in Syria, with Moscow remaining the chief ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Ankara backing rebels seeking his ouster. However, both countries have worked closely in recent months despite their differences to achieve a political solution.
In a further source of tension, Erdogan on Monday expressed concern to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over attacks in Eastern Ghouta after an alleged chemical attack there killed dozens of people.
Erdogan last week hosted Putin and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, another ally of the Syrian regime. The three presidents vowed to work for a lasting ceasefire in Syria.