MOSCOW - Russians officials urged Turkey to limit the duration and scale of its cross-border military incursion into northeast Syria, stressing Turkish troops must at all costs avoid clashing with Syrian government forces, which have moved north and are racing to take over Kurdish border towns ahead of the Turks.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Syria Tuesday appeared to toughen Russia's language about the offensive, dubbing it for the first time as "unacceptable." Previously the Kremlin appeared to endorse the incursion, with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin saying Russia would go along with Turkey as it acknowledged Ankara had legitimate border security concerns.
But Russian officials had from the start detailed red lines - including that the offensive wouldn't lead to any permanent Turkish occupation.
In return for the acceptance of the incursion, which Ankara says is aimed at clearing a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia allied with secessionist Turkish Kurds from the border lands, Russian officials made little pretense of their expectation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would later acquiesce with Moscow's plans for Syria's future, one that will see President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's ally, reassert control across the whole of Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit by Putin to the Gulf emirate, Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev indicated Moscow expects Ankara to wrap up its offensive quickly. He said Turkish troops had the right under an agreement struck between Damascus and Ankara in 1998, the Adana pact, to temporarily push up to a maximum of 10 kilometers into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations.
"But it doesn't give them the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently," he emphasized. "We don't approve of their actions," he added.
Shortly after Lavrentiev briefed reporters, Russian officials said President Putin and his Turkish counterpart spoke on the phone. According to them, Putin told Erdogan that the situation risked becoming unstable, noting that several hundred Islamic State captives being held by Syrian Kurds had exploited the chaos and escaped. Putin invited Erdogan to visit Russia in the next few days for urgent talks, a proposal Ankara had accepted, Kremlin officials say.
The sharper language may suggest, say analysts, that Ankara has overreached, as far as the Kremlin is concerned and has surprised Moscow by going deeper into Syrian territory than Russian officials had expected. That has prompted Russian worries about Erdogan's longer term aims and concern that he may intend to prolong the Turkish military presence in Syria, using it as leverage in talks brokered by Moscow about Syria's political future.
"Maybe Erdogan is proving to be a more difficult partner than the Kremlin had anticipated," quipped a Western diplomat based in the Russian capital. But he added it was unlikely Erdogan will want to fall out with Putin and disrupt Ankara's warming ties with Moscow, especially as he comes under pressure from erstwhile NATO allies to withdraw.
On Tuesday, President Erdogan rejected a U.S. call for an immediate ceasefire in northern Syria. Erdogan's comments come ahead of a visit to Turkey by the U.S. vice-president and U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. "They say 'declare a ceasefire'. We will never declare a ceasefire, Erdogan told reporters.
Critics of the Trump administration say the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria effectively gave Turkey a "green light" for the cross-border offensive. Trump officials deny this and on Monday Washington announced sanctions on Turkish ministries and senior government officials as punishment for the incursion. Several of America's European allies have announced they will stop arms exports to Turkey.
The raft of U.S. sanctions on Turkey include scrapping a proposed $100 billion trade deal and tariffs on Turkish steel up to 50 per cent. In a statement President Donald Trump accused Turkey of creating "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States" by "undermining" the campaign against the Islamic State, as well as endangering civilians.
As Western powers sought to gain some traction on Ankara, Russia appears to have been quick to try to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. troop withdrawal and to confirm a role it has earmarked for itself as the regional powerbroker. Local Kurdish sources told VOA over Skype that Russian troops had started to patrol to keep Turkish and Syrian government forces apart.
Russian envoy Lavrentiev confirmed the on-the-ground activity saying that Moscow had brokered the deal between the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad government. He said it was in "no one's interests" for Assad forces and Turkish troops to clash. "Russia will not allow it," he said. There have been some reports of scattered clashes between Turkish-backed forces and both Assad troops and the SDF, with at least one Turkish soldier killed.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces has been greeted gleefully by pro-Kremlin media outlets with state-owned RT television giving viewers a guided tour of a former U.S. military base near the town of Manbij. "Good morning, everybody, from Manbij," the journalist, Oleg Blokhin, said in the report. "I'm at the American base where they still were yesterday, and this morning it's already ours."
But even the tub-thumping RT questioned whether Moscow has bitten off more than it can chew by setting itself up as the region's power broker, pondering in one opinion article whether Putin can please everyone in the Middle East.