Erdogan Says It’s Time for Three Million Syrian Refugees to Return Home
Hosts summit with Putin and Rouhani to deter fighting in opposition-held region
[Ankara] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a meeting with his Russian and Iranian counterparts on Monday that some three million Syrian refugees could be repatriated if a safe zone in the Idlib region is set up but analysts told The Media Line that fighting will persist.
Erdogan hosted two days bi- and tri-lateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the ultimate goal being an agreement to limit fighting over the last rebel stronghold in Syria following eight years of civil war.
According to the Reuters news agency, except for Erdogan, no mention was made of the desired safe zone in northeast Syria when the participants faced reporters at the conclusion of the summit and there was no reference to it in the joint statement issued at the parlay’s conclusion.
“Russia, on its part, plans to support the Syrian army while it carries out local operations aimed at removing the terrorist threat where it emerges,” Putin said.
The language from Erdogan struck a starkly different tone. Although he has overseen offensives into Syria, he argued for peace instead of urging the removal of terrorists.
“We are in a period when we need to take more responsibility for peace in Syria, when we (three countries) need to carry more weight,” said Erdogan.
The region is fought over by a mix of forces from the Syrian regime, as well as extremist and moderate groups.
The Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Aaron Stein, told The Media Line that Russia will continue to allow the Syrian regime to attack Idlib and has no motivation not to do so.
“It does have an incentive to manage Turkey, which they are doing effectively, but they will support an offensive to take back that territory. It is absolutely inconceivable to think the regime and its allies will support non-Syrian elements controlling the border,” Stein stated.
A full assault on the region could push hundreds of thousands of people towards the Syrian-Turkish border to seek asylum in Turkey.
Reuters reported that the Syrian regime attacked Idlib one day before the meeting, citing rebel and residential sources, despite a ceasefire preventing attacks by Assad’s force a couple weeks ago.
Maintaining some level of stability in Idlib province is especially important for Erdogan, who is facing domestic pressure over resentment towards Syrian refugees.
Turkey hosts the 3.6 million displaced Syrians — more than any other nation.
It is thought those souring sentiments contributed to Erdogan’s party losing the June election for mayor of Istanbul, the Turkish president’s greatest defeat since coming to office. He has highlighted the possibility of Syrians going back when he has argued for a safe zone.
Erdogan has said that one million Syrians could be returned to northeast Syria where he wants to create a safe zone along with the U.S. and clear the area of the Kurdish fighters that Turkey calls terrorists.
Amid police detentions and deportations, both the numbers of migrants and refugees trying to leave Turkey and arrivals in Greece have gone up dramatically.
Erdogan has threatened to “open the gates” if there is not more international support for Turkey over Syria, especially from Europe.
The European Union struck a deal with Turkey in 2016, in which Ankara would stem the flow of migrants going to Europe. But Turkey has complained it has not received the money it was promised in the deal.
Erdogan is also in a sensitive position because of increasing threats of direct confrontation with the Syrian regime, which recently encircled a Turkish observation post in the north. Ankara also accused Assad’s forces of carrying out a lethal attack on one of its military convoys which was travelling in the region.
Russia working with Turkey holds a greater purpose than strategies over Syria.
Erdogan has been moving Turkey closer to Russia, even though the two countries have historically been competitors in the region, backing opposing sides in Syria, with Ankara supporting rebel groups and Moscow, along with Tehran, backing Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad.
Kristian Brakel, head of the Turkey program for Germany’s Heinrich Boll Foundation, wrote in a message to The Media Line that Moscow is also trying to move closer to Turkey and pull it away from Western allies.
“And for that they need to keep the status quo in Idlib. They also want to make sure that [Turkey] stays in [Russia’s] orbit and does not gravitate back towards U.S. too much. Trusting that [Ankara] can at least partly manage the different rebel groups is the best bet for Russia to keep the lid on the whole mess that is Idlib,” Brakel stated.