Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday that his country sought Russia’s help with a ground invasion of northern Syria.

Erdoğan said that he asked for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support in “making mutual decisions and maybe acting to take steps together” in Syria’s north, according to The National News.

On Nov. 20, Turkey began a weeks-long campaign of airstrikes across north and northeast Syria. The Turkish president said the airstrikes were in retaliation for a Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul, which killed six people and injured at least 81. Turkey blames the bombing on the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD. The Kurds deny being involved in the terrorist attack.

According to Human Rights Watch, the airstrikes inflicted considerable damage on both the civilian population and critical infrastructure across the targeted region, dramatically worsening an already “catastrophic humanitarian crisis for Kurds, Arabs and other communities in the region.”

“Turkey’s attacks on populated areas and critical infrastructure across north and northeast Syria is putting civilians’ basic rights further at risk,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director for the Middle East and North African division of Human Rights Watch. “Syrians are already enduring a humanitarian catastrophe, a growing displacement crisis and an economy in free fall. Turkey’s military strikes risk making an already unbearable situation much worse.”

Since the airstrikes, Erdoğan threatened a ground invasion into the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, in northern Syria, which Erdoğan claims are an offshoot of the PKK, an association the SDF denies. 

“We have been bearing down on terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and guns,” Erdoğan said on Nov. 22. “God willing, we will root out all of them as soon as possible, together with our tanks, our soldiers.” 

“Turkey is quite serious about the current Syria offensive,” history professor Howard Eissenstat of St. Lawrence University said at the launch of Turkey’s air offensive. “This fits with both long-standing Turkish assumptions about its security interests and Erdoğan’s need to look strong in advance of elections scheduled for June. Under the current circumstances, Russia or the U.S. might be able to impose limits on Turkish actions, but they can’t stop them entirely.”

Despite having friendly relations with Turkey, Russia is a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while Turkey supports the rebels trying to get rid of him. Russia, however, might be willing to stand on the sidelines and let Erdoğan invade.

“We understand and respect Turkey’s concerns about ensuring its own security,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in November. “At the same time, we call on all parties to refrain from steps that could lead to the destabilization of the overall situation.”

On Sunday, Erdoğan called on Putin to discuss the creation of a “buffer zone” between Turkey and northern Syria – the Turkish president has spoken of creating a security corridor for years – and said that the airstrikes were “just the beginning.” 

He stated that Turkey would begin a ground invasion as soon as possible and told Putin that it was “a priority” and “important to clear the [Kurdish fighters] from the border to a depth of at least 30 kilometers.” 

Some of the Kurdish forces are stationed in areas under Russian military control, which is why Erdoğan is discussing the matter with Russia. Erdoğan reportedly also criticized Putin for not adhering to a 2019 agreement to do just that. The Kremlin issued a statement confirming that the 2019 agreement was discussed.  

“The two countries’ defence and foreign services will maintain close contacts in this regard,” the Russian statement said.

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