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.


Another Turkish journalist jailed over Gulen links

Ali Unal was chief writer at the now-defunct Zaman newspaper. (Supplied)
Updated 15 November 2018
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Another Turkish journalist jailed over Gulen links

  • About 250 people were killed in the coup attempt and in the subsequent crackdown, Turkey jailed 77,000 people pending trial

ISTANBUL: A court sentenced Turkish journalist Ali Unal to 19 years in jail on Wednesday on a charge of being a leader in the network accused of carrying out a failed coup in July 2016, the state-owned Anadolu news agency reported.
The ruling followed a sustained crackdown in the wake of the coup attempt, but also came amid steps by the government that appear aimed at improving ties with the US and Europe, strained by the sweeping campaign of arrests.
Unal was chief writer at the now-defunct Zaman newspaper, widely seen as the flagship media outlet for the network of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara says orchestrated the attempted putsch. Gulen denies any involvement.
Speaking by video link from jail to the court in the western province of Usak, Unal denied being a founder or leader of the network and denied involvement in the putsch, Anadolu said.
“I have no link with any terrorist organization,” he said, adding that he had spoken five or six times to Gulen and that he was being tried over his writing.
He was sentenced to 19 years and six months for “leading an armed terrorist group.” Six other Zaman journalists were convicted on similar charges in July.
About 250 people were killed in the coup attempt and in the subsequent crackdown, Turkey jailed 77,000 people pending trial. Authorities also sacked or suspended 150,000 civil servants and military personnel and shut down dozens of media outlets.Illustrating the scale of its actions, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday his ministry had dismissed 23 percent of its career personnel over links to Gulen.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said some journalists helped nurture terrorists with their writing, and that the crackdown is needed to ensure stability in a NATO member bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran. Critics say Erdogan has used the crackdown to muzzle dissent and increase his own power. The European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, has also criticized the crackdown. The verdict came a day after another court threw out the conviction of former Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak, annulling a verdict sentencing her to two years in prison in absentia on charges of carrying out propaganda for Kurdish militants.