Erdogan’s Syria plan unlikely to bear fruit
Media outlets in Turkey have claimed that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised an important issue with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during their bilateral summit in Moscow on March 5. It was about building settlements in Syria, in the areas close to the Turkish border. There are no details on how Putin reacted to Erdogan’s proposal. As there was no follow up, one may presume that the proposal was left pending.
Erdogan’s main aim in making this proposal was to prevent the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from receiving the money that US President Donald Trump allocated to them for the mission of protecting the oil wells in the northeast of Syria.
Turkey has been insisting for years that the YPG had to be expelled from Syrian towns close to the Turkish border and that, otherwise, it was going to carry out a military operation to achieve this. This operation was finally carried out in October last year, and Trump agreed to move the YPG from the Turkish border and settle them further south to protect the oil wells. The US allocated the money that would accrue from the sale of oil to the YPG.
Turkey belatedly understood that it was a mistake to insist on pushing the Kurds away from its border. Ankara’s initial idea was to push them to a distance of 30 to 40 kilometers from the border along a belt of 440 kilometers, stretching from Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) to the Iraqi border. Furthermore, it wanted to keep this belt under its exclusive control, to be patrolled by Turkish soldiers.
After intensive negotiations with both the US and Russia, this belt had to be reduced to a length of 120 kilometers and the width had to become just 10 kilometers. Moscow also persuaded Turkey that this tiny belt be jointly patrolled by Turkish and Russian soldiers.
Billions of dollars have been allocated to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. It is thus unclear whether either Turkey or the international community will be able to afford to build houses for Syria refugees.
The Kurdish fighters have ultimately been moved away from the border, but they are also now distanced from the threat of the Turkish army and guaranteed a stable income. This is the opposite of what Turkey was expecting when it initiated the process.
According to one media report, Erdogan told Putin that, instead of allocating this money to the “terrorist organization,” it could be used for the legitimate purpose of building houses in northeastern Syria and settling Syrian refugees who were willing to return to their country.
The implementation of Erdogan’s project seems to be becoming more difficult each passing day because the Syrian government is establishing itself in areas beyond Turkey’s control in its northeastern territories. Settling hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the narrow strip of 10 kilometers will not be easy.
Erdogan’s second aim in making this proposal was to allow pro-government Turkish construction companies to make money out of it. The history of this project goes back to 2015. When the Kurdish fighters repelled Daesh in Kobane, the YPG implemented a policy of dissimulated ethnic cleansing and some 400,000 people moved to Turkey. According to an Amnesty International report, the YPG did not allow the indigenous Arab and Turkmen population of the region to return to their homes, and it instead settled Kurds brought in from other areas. It burned the houses and crops of some alleged Daesh sympathizers. It even refused the return of Kurds who did not support the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Erdogan’s third aim was to ease its burden of looking after more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, while Turkey’s economy is bogged down in serious difficulties. He hopes to find a solution to entice the Syrians to go back to their country, which could help alleviate Turkey’s economic problems.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the international agenda and the future looks uncertain for the entire world. However, one thing is certain: There will be an enormous contraction in the world economy. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been allocated to fighting the pandemic. More may be needed in the future. Therefore, it is too early to tell whether either Turkey or the international community will be able to spare the funds to build houses for the Syrian refugees.
There are additional difficulties, such as the legal problems of building houses in another country’s territory without its consent. Erdogan and Putin have reconfirmed their support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity after almost every meeting that they have held. Any such project will be contradicting these commitments.
In light of this background, it is not easy to tell whether Erdogan’s proposal has a chance of being implemented.
Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar