Turkey, Russia and Iran meet to tackle Syria issues

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this file photo. (AFP)
Updated 08 February 2018
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Turkey, Russia and Iran meet to tackle Syria issues

ANKARA: It did not take long for the three guarantor countries of the Astana de-escalation deal to decide on discussing their disagreements over peace efforts in Syria.
Turkish presidential sources announced on Thursday that Ankara, Moscow and Tehran will meet in Istanbul. Although the meeting date is not fixed yet, it is expected to be held soon this month.
Last time the three leaders met was in November at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
On a parallel track, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu conducted high-level meetings on Wednesday in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Russia, Iran and Turkey differ on their perspectives on the Syrian conflict. Turkey has backed the rebels seeking Assad’s removal while the Assad regime, which Turkey has always opposed, has been Iran’s chief ally since the start of the Syrian civil war.
Iran is also outraged at the increasing presence of Turkey in Syria and is concerned that Turkish forces intend to stay for a long term, especially following Turkey’s cross-border offensive into the northwestern enclave of Afrin against Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG).
“We wish for Turkey’s operation in Syria to end at the earliest time,” Rouhani told reporters Tuesday.
A Turkish soldier was killed on Monday in a mortar-and-rocket attack by Iran-backed militias in the opposition-held Idlib, where Turkey was establishing an observation post.
This critical get-together in Istanbul will focus on Syria, but its real aim will be a broader effort by the three countries to underline their red lines in the region while keeping alive their fragile cooperation in what has been dubbed the “Astana process.”
A central question now is how the countries will be able to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable differences over policies in Syria.
The answer, say analysts, may lie in their ability to work on a common denominator: Preserving the territorial integrity of Syria.
But they also emphasize the importance of such efforts to play down tensions in Syria through greater diplomatic consultations.
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Istanbul-based think-tank Bilgesam, said this trilateral meeting is significant as it will be held between the heads of state of the three countries — not at the foreign ministerial level, as it was the case in the previous meetings.
“The more Turkey gains control and strength over Syrian territories, the more Iran considers it as a rival. Tehran doesn’t want to take so much responsibility, and therefore conducts proxy wars not only in Syria but also in Iraq and Yemen through its militia and Hezbollah,” Semin told Arab News.
But Semin is skeptical about the outcome of the meeting as he thinks that Iran has often deviated from Russia and Turkey on its Syria strategy as it prioritizes military means over political solutions.
“The only common denominator of these three countries is their commitment to preserve Syrian territorial integrity. But when it comes to Tehran, the words on the negotiation table of the trilateral meetings don’t match its deeds,” he said.
According to Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, these summit meetings are not only important to tackle the practical military issues but also to send signals to the West about the emergence of a Russia-Turkey-Iran axis in Syria.
“Russia is aware that the future of its influence in Syria very much depends on its ability to maintain its close dialogue with Turkey and Iran. This objective becomes even more important considering that currently Moscow, Ankara and Tehran all have significant disagreements with Washington,” Ersen told Arab News.
One thing is clear: The three countries depend on each other to reach their own goals in Syria and to resolve any unforeseen crisis, such as the recent downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria’s northwestern Idlib’s skies by rebels. Russia, with the help of Turkey, has repatriated the pilot’s dead body and the debris of the plane.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call on Wednesday to accelerate the establishment of observation points in Syria’s Idlib region as part of the commitments of the Astana deal brokered last year between the three guarantor countries.
The Turkish military recently completed construction of the sixth observation point in the Idlib region according to the Astana deal reached with Tehran and Moscow to establish, monitor and sustain the current cease-fire between pro-Assad forces and opposition fighters in the region.
Last month, in an interview with the state-run Anadolu agency, Cavusoglu urged Russia and Iran to fulfill their responsibilities under the Astana deal, and said that the advances of the Syrian army and allied forces into Idlib have been possible only with the support of Moscow and Tehran.
“Moscow and Tehran are uneasy about Turkey’s ongoing military operation in Afrin, however they are not in a position to alienate Ankara due to its key role in Idlib. Similarly, Turkey requires the support of Moscow and Tehran to reach the strategic objectives of Operation Olive Branch,” Ersen said.
“The dialogue between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran is important to achieve the key objectives of the Astana process as well as the Sochi congress, which was organized a few weeks ago. For Russia, both platforms are still very important instruments for maintaining its role as the main power broker in Syria. Therefore it will do its best to keep Turkey and Iran by its side,” he said.


Ankara’s handling of EU programs for Syrian refugees under scrutiny

Syrian refugees wait at the main bus station in Istanbul. The Facility for Refugees in Turkey is the main mechanism to financially support around 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and it is endowed with $6.78 billion. (Reuters)
Updated 15 November 2018
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Ankara’s handling of EU programs for Syrian refugees under scrutiny

  • One of these two EU-funded programs addresses Syrian children’s school-related needs, and is also supported through grants from the US and Norway

ANKARA: The European Court of Auditors (ECA), a Luxembourg-based financial watchdog, emphasized in a report published on Tuesday the difficulties in properly tracking the EU funds provided to Turkey to address the needs of refugees while living outside camps.
The Facility for Refugees in Turkey is the main mechanism to financially support about 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and it is endowed with €6 billion ($6.78 billion) that will be disbursed in two installments for financing various projects addressing the urgent needs of refugees and their host communities.
The ECA criticized the transparency level of two cash-assistance humanitarian programs — valued at about €1.1 billion — where it was not possible to properly track the flow of money going to the beneficiaries from registration until payment.
Ankara reportedly declined to disclose the beneficiaries’ names, and instead gave anonymous banking details.
One of these two EU-funded programs addresses Syrian children’s school-related needs, and is also supported through grants from the US and Norway. The other program, the Emergency Social Safety Network, is intended to provide assistance for food and rent.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Bettina Jakobsen, a member of the ECA and chief auditor of the report, said the Turkish authorities referred to their national legislation on data protection as a basis for not granting access to the UN partner or ECA access to beneficiary data.
“We consider that this lack of access to final beneficiaries’ data de facto limited the scope of our audit and the related level of assurance we can provide,” she said.
“At the time of the audit, no issue of fraud or corruption has been reported. We have not experienced any other difficulties when carrying out our audit procedures and the cooperation with the Turkish authorities was good.”
In the context of the second tranche, the ECA recommends that the European Commission insist that the Turkish authorities grant full access to the beneficiaries’ data.
“The commission should also scale up monitoring and reporting on the facility. In addition, the ECA is also carrying out legality and regularity audits, and considering the scale of these projects, an audit of the legality and regularity of the related payments may take place in the coming years,” Jakobsen told Arab News.
During a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Jakobsen said the lack of access to such key information was unprecedented in her career and this was the first time the institution had faced such a refusal, leading to some “doubts.”
However, Ayselin Yildiz, UNESCO Chair on International Migration at Yasar University in Izmir, said she was surprised that the European authorities are pushing Turkey not to respect data protection rights.
“Of course, the procedures of allocation and spending of the funds have to be transparent and accountable, but it does not require sharing the details of individual data with third parties,” she told Arab News.
Yildiz, who has coordinated and worked on several EU-funded projects on refugees, also noted that the two cash-assistance programs in question are shuffled through UN agencies, the World Food Programme and implementing partners.
“They must have their own internal control and monitoring mechanisms. These issues had to be set well in the beginning in grant agreements and I question why this has occurred as an obstacle for cooperation two years after the launch of the program,” she added.
“Beyond the trust and accountability problem between the EU and Turkish authorities, we should question if the consent of Syrian refugees has been taken on the conditions of benefiting from these funds and whether they had agreed to share their personal data, which is very sensitive for their future migration journey,” Yildiz underlined.
It was not the only challenge the auditors encountered in monitoring Turkey’s management of European taxpayer money going to Syrian refugees. The report also found that the interest generated on the money in the bank did not reach the refugees or return to the EU taxpayer, but was kept by the implementing partners.
However, the report also welcomed the fact that “all the humanitarian projects audited provided helpful support to the refugees, mainly through cash-based assistance, and most of them achieved their intended outputs.”
The commission will consider the recommendations of the audit report while implementing the next tranche of the assistance between the end of 2018 and 2019, which will amount to €3 billion, to prevent any risk of the funds being misused.
Laura Batalla, the secretary-general of the European Parliament Turkey Forum, said the EU funding for refugees has delivered tangible and measurable results in record time, which has had a positive impact on the livelihood of Syrians living in Turkey.
“Therefore, it should be hailed as a success. The EU and Turkey should, however, take into account the recommendations made by the Court of Auditors to achieve the maximum potential of the facility. Improving transparency is essential in this regard,” she said.
The Turkish government has not yet issued any public statement about the EU audit report.