Turkey’s leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), hosted an International Syria Conference last Saturday, 28 September, in Istanbul. The conference theme, “The Open Door to Peace in Syria,” its call for “respect for Syria’s territorial integrity” and its suggestion that counterterrorism efforts would best be served “by establishing direct relations with the government in Damascus” are diametrically opposed to everything Ankara’s policies stand for.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain single-mindedly bent on the course that he had claimed would solve the Syrian crisis but instead, according to the opposition, was instrumental in turning Syria into a major humanitarian disaster.
The latest phase of Ankara’s plans for Syria is inspired by that humanitarian disaster and essentially involves carving out a so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria in which to “return” millions of Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey. According to Turkey’s TRT news site, Erdogan’s vision includes the construction of 140 villages, each capable of accommodating 5,000 inhabitants, and 10 municipal centres each capable of accommodating 30,000 people each.
The municipal centres would be equipped with hospitals, football fields, mosques and schools. According to the news site, Turkey’s plan for resettling Syrian refugees would cost TL 151 billion ($27 billion) and foreign funding would foot the bill for some 200,000 housing units.
Beneath the headline, “Erdogan’s new ‘crazy project’: Free safe-zone housing for returning Syrians”, Ahval columnist Zulfikar Dogan observes that “Erdogan’s Syria policy has put Turkey between the proverbial rock and hard place” and that the Turkish leader sees the “safe zone” as the way to kill at least two birds with one stone. This is why he has been notching up his threats to launch an attack across the border into Syria, and to open the floodgates of Syrian refugees into Europe, while simultaneously doubling and tripling the numbers of refugees who would benefit from his free housing scheme in another country.
In a speech 5 September, he said he would supply a free housing with gardens to one million refugees. In his joint press conference with his Russian and Iranian counterparts on 16 September, that figure rose to two million. Just two days later, in a speech to Turkish university deans on the occasion of the beginning of the scholastic year, the figure climbed to three million. Some days earlier, Erdogan had vowed to “flood” European shores with millions of refugees if the EU did not cough up the money it promised to Turkey to cope with the 3.6 million refugees. Addressing “Europe”, he said: “Pay up and we’ll close the border gates and, on top of that, we’ll take the million Syrian refugees from you.”
But a haze in which lurk a lot of thorny shrubs stands between the ostensible beneficiaries and this “promised land” decreed by Erdogan and run by Ankara. A month ago, Erdogan warned the US that if Turkey’s vision for a “safe zone” was not realised in two weeks, Ankara would be forced to resort to its own plans. Erdogan had long been accusing Washington of foot dragging on the safe zone question.
Part of the differences between Ankara and Washington have to do with the actual size of that zone. Ankara has its eyes set on a stretch of territory stretching 35 kilometres into Syria while Washington’s allies on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have agreed to withdraw to no further than 14 kilometres from the Turkish border in some areas. (This is just one of the many questions unresolved.)
Washington, for its part, has been forced to reiterate its warning to Ankara not to undertake any unilateral action in Syria. “We’ve made it clear to Turkey at every level that any unilateral operation is not going to lead to an improvement in anyone’s security,” US Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey told reporters on the sidelines of the General Assembly meetings last week. Evidently, Jeffrey’s remarks worked a kind of magic, because in a televised speech on Friday, Erdogan said that Turkey’s and the US’s work to create a safe zone for Syrian refugees in northern Syria was “on schedule”.
There remains a curious question, however. During the two weeks prior to his trip to New York to attend the General Assembly, Erdogan gave the impression that when he met with Trump he would make it crystal clear how Turkey stood on the safe zone and that he would “follow up” on his phone call with Trump about an “offer” to buy US Patriot missiles. Strangely, the meeting never took place.
In fact, no meeting with the US president had even been scheduled despite the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s best efforts. Instead, there was that fleeting contact during an official reception. Why so? To some observers, this seemed more like a snub directed at that permanently cheerless guest and ex-ally who insisted on buying Russian S-400s, who continues to detain US citizens as hostages and who is growing too chummy with Iran. These are probably some of the reasons for Washington’s foot dragging on Erdogan’s vision for a “T-type” safe zone and why his promises of paradise to Syrian refugees will continue to idle.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Syrian pawns, Erdogan’s threats