Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

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Internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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Internally displaced boys run outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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A Syrian man reads a leaflet dropped by Assad regime helicopters in the northwestern Syrian town of Binnish on August 9, 2018, saying the war is about to end and calling for reconciliation. (AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)
Updated 10 August 2018
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Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

  • Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran
  • Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically

ANKARA: Amid news of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime’s current preparations for a military operation in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, experts anticipate a massive influx of civilians into neighboring Turkey. There are currently around 2.5 million displaced civilians in Idlib, according to the UN.

Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and Turkish Armed Forces have so far built 12 observation posts in the region, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered between the three countries. The majority of Idlib is currently held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the extremist militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit Ankara on Aug. 13 to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on recent developments in Syria.

Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically. The UN will ask Ankara to keep its borders open to the refugees fleeing the regime attack on Idlib, according to press reports.

Metin Corabatir, a former spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Turkey and president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, thinks that, as there could be armed elements among the refugees, Turkey may decide against taking them in, due to domestic security concerns.

“Ankara should negotiate with their international partners over this humanitarian situation, and ask that the burden be shared, rather than struggling alone with a potential refugee influx,” he told Arab News.

Besides security concerns, Turkey’s economic downturn, and a surge of anti-refugee public sentiment also mean Ankara will likely be unwilling to open its borders to refugees from Idlib. Turkey already hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the latest figures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to meet in September, and the refugee issue will top Turkey’s agenda for that meeting.

Corabatir believes that any military offensive by the Syrian regime in Idlib would draw Turkey into the conflict.

“Turkey will either protect the security of its military personnel in the observation towers, or decide to withdraw from the area where it is a guarantor country — which would mean the collapse of the Astana deal,” he said.

Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said Ankara is worried that an attack on Idlib will provoke a new influx of refugees, at a time when it is seeking to stabilize northern Aleppo to accommodate repatriated refugees from southern Turkey.

“Moreover, Ankara does not wish to host more Syrian refugees as their integration is increasingly becoming a topic of heated debate on the domestic scene,” he told Arab News.

According to Hatahet, Ankara does not consider all areas of Idlib to be of equal importance, and does not intend to maintain a presence beyond a narrow buffer along its borders.

“Ultimately, Turkey will seek a grand bargain in the north and would not shy away from using Idlib as a bargaining chip in exchange for stabilizing Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas,” he noted.

Experts suggest that Turkey will expect Russia to restrain Assad’s potential offensive in Idlib. Russia, however, prioritizes the extermination of extremists in the region. Lavrov recently stated that it was “necessary to deal a final blow to terrorists near Idlib.”

Hatahet believes Turkey and Russia could arrange a deal whereby Russia is able to attack extremists in Idlib, but will otherwise remain on the periphery of the territory.

“Erdogan recently spoke to Putin and warned him that targeting civilians in Idlib could destroy the spirit of the Astana accord,” he said, but added that Assad’s regime is growing in confidence and that containing its forces is no easy task.


Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

Updated 23 January 2019
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Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

  • The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict
  • Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday vowed to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria.
“Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan said in translated comments at a joint press conference after their talks, which lasted around three hours.
“With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more.”
“We agreed how we’ll coordinate our work in the near future,” Putin said, calling the talks which included the countries’ defense ministers “effective.”
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Putin addressed Erdogan as “dear friend,” saying that their countries “work on issues of regional security and actively cooperate on Syria.”
Erdogan used the same term for Putin and said “our solidarity makes a weighty contribution to the security of the region.”
The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: Russia provides critical support to the Syrian government, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Despite this, they have worked closely to find a political solution to the seven-year conflict.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month about pulling 2,000 American troops out of Syria.
Putin said that if carried out, the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria “will be a positive step, it will help stabilize the situation in this restive area.”
Turkey has also welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal, but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has upset ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan had said on Monday he would discuss with Putin the creation of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria, suggested by Trump.
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supports “establishing dialogue between Damascus officials and representatives of the Kurds.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said that Damascus must take control of the north.
The northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Wednesday that the situation in the province remained of “serious concern.”
Putin said that the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib “in great detail today.”
“We have a shared conviction that we must continue jointly fighting terrorists wherever they are, including in the Idlib zone,” the Russian leader said.
Erdogan said that the countries will wage a “lengthy fight” in Syria.
Nearly eight years into Syria’s deadly conflict, the planned US pullout has led to another key step in Assad’s Russian-backed drive to reassert control.
Kurdish forces who were left exposed by Trump’s pledge to withdraw have asked the Syrian regime for help to face a threatened Turkish offensive.
The Kremlin hailed the entry by Syrian forces into the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after Kurds opened the gates.
Moscow plans to organize a three-way summit with Turkey and Iran early this year as part of the Astana peace process, launched by the three countries in 2017.
Putin said Wednesday the next summit would be held “in the near future” in Russia, saying the leaders still needed to agree the time and location with Iran.
The last meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani took place in Iran in September last year with the fate of rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.
Ties between Russia and Turkey plunged to their lowest level in years in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
But after a reconciliation deal in 2016, relations have recovered at a remarkable speed with Putin and Erdogan cooperating closely over Syria, Turkey buying Russian-made air defense systems and Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.