Syrian leader condemns ‘thief’ Erdogan during visit to retaken area

By Associated Press Reporters

Syrian President Bashar Assad has condemned Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “thief” as he made his first visit to areas in Idlib province recently retaken by Syrian government forces from Turkey-backed rebels.

Syrian state media showed images of Mr Assad standing among Syrian soldiers in what the report said was strategic southern Idlib territory.

The media quoted him as calling Mr Erdogan a “thief who robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory” — apparently referring to Turkey’s invasion this month into north-eastern Syria to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Bashar Assad visits the strategic town of Habeet (Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency/AP)

Turkey has also carried out other incursions into Syria and controls territory east of Idlib.

It also has observation points inside Idlib, negotiated with Russia, to monitor a ceasefire between the government and opposition fighters and jihadi groups.

Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday that up to 1,300 Syrian Kurdish fighters have yet to vacate the north-eastern Syrian area invaded by Ankara, hours before the five-day ceasefire is set to expire.

He said up to 800 Syrian Kurdish fighters have already left under the deal that brought the pause in fighting following Turkey’s incursion, and renewed threats to resume the offensive if all the Syrian Kurds do not depart before the deadline runs out.

The Turkish leader spoke to reporters before travelling to Russia for a high-stakes meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin welcomes Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Sochi (Sergei Chirikov/AP)

The pullout occurred under the terms of a US-brokered deal for a 120-hour pause in fighting to allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to leave areas Turkey controls.

Ankara launched the operation into northern Syria on October 9, saying it aimed to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists and an extension of a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

The move came days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was pulling American forces out of the area, essentially abandoning Kurdish allies in the battle against the so-called Islamic State group and paving the way for the incursion Turkey had long promised to carry out.

Turkey wants to establish what it calls a “safe zone” extending more than 250 miles along the Turkish-Syrian border and about 19 miles inside Syria, where it plans to resettle about two million of the roughly 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

“If America does not keep to its promises, our offensive will continue from where it left off, with a much greater determination,” Mr Erdogan said.

“There is no place for the (Kurdish fighters) in Syria’s future. We hope that with Russia’s co-operation, we will rid the region of separatist terror.”

Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin are meeting in Sochi for talks expected to focus on border areas held by Syrian government forces.