For days, both Syrian public opinion and the world have been discussing the question of “What is Turkey doing in Idlib, Syria?” If you are really curious about this question, you must have been born after 2015. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria for both humanitarian and security reasons due to a number of problems, such as nearly 4 million refugees coming to the country during the nine-year war, instability spreading from Syria and dozens of people killed in missile strikes on Turkish soil, which were launched from across the Syrian border.
The main reason why Turkey is in Syria is that the U.S. has trained and equipped the YPG terrorist group on our border under the pretext of the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh and has provided them truckloads of heavy weapons. A Kurdish statelet to be established in the south of Turkey means a border security crisis for Turkey. The presence of the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, in northern Syria is a security risk. Turkey has carried out Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring to eliminate this risk. The YPG also has good relations with Russia and opened its first international office in Moscow. Although the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the international community and the YPG is a wing of the PKK, the YPG is considered a sympathetic organization that has opened offices in various capitals around the world, while T-shirts featuring YPG flags and emblems are sold on Amazon.com. The overt support given to the YPG, the undeserved positive impression created about it and its projected image as an insurgent group all show that the U.S., Russia and the European Union want to keep the PKK card on hand to use against Turkey in northern Syria when it serves their interests. Turkey, on the other hand, shows that the PKK, which is a threat to the country, can be instrumentalized from time to time.
Turkey’s relations with Russia received a major blow when the Syrian regime attacked Turkish troops in Idlib on Feb. 27. Let us remember that Turkey-Russia relations almost came to a standstill before 2017. The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia has led to very productive steps being taken together recently. However, Russia’s support for Bashar Assad set it at loggerheads with Turkey in Syria. Although the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his counterpart Vladimir Putin today will have positive consequences, pushing the two countries to move on, the process of recovering relations seems to be challenging.
Meanwhile, Turkey stipulates some conditions for the future of Syria, such as protecting the territorial integrity of the country, a new constitution for a peaceful political transformation process and overthrowing Assad who is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Even if all this is accomplished, it will take decades for Syria to recover from this devastated state. Syria will remain a country exporting political instability and terror on our border for a long time.
Turkey is insistent on keeping the borders of Syria determined in the Sochi deal. We will see at the end of today’s summit whether it will be possible to achieve this. Besides, we have no problem in Syria except for Idlib, Manbij and the eastern side of the Euphrates. It is necessary to put forth the actual situation in Idlib as it has been in Jarablus. It might be enough to create a safe zone in the north and in the area where the M5 highway is located.
Even if Turkey steps back on Idlib, it could establish a status quo similar to the Euphrates Shield region. If a political faction is created outside the regime in Syria, Turkey can establish a direct relationship with the new players.
As a result, the tension between Turkey and Russia will not be relieved in the short-term, and relations will take a rocky path of ups and downs. Even if this is resolved in today’s Moscow talks, there may still be tension in the coming days.
Humanity vs security
The second major problem when it comes to Syria is the refugee issue. The situation of refugees in northern Idlib is getting worse every day. It is not enough for Turkey to want a safe zone; this safe zone needs to be built quickly. Local people should not be left with a choice between life and death. The economic situation, which has been devastated by the ongoing war in northern Syria, is not sustainable. The previous 2016 refugee deal was a very, very bad deal. The promises were not fulfilled; visa-free travel has never been granted to Turkish citizens and the 6 billion euros promised by the EU have never been provided without interruption. Moreover, four years have passed and Turkey has spent more than $40 billion to care for the refugees. The EU constantly saying “we are giving money to Turkey” is funny. This amount is inappropriate, and it cannot relieve Turkey. If Europe really wants to relieve and support Turkey, it should provide the concessions it has already promised: revision of the customs union and EU accession talks.
There is an urgent need to establish living quarters for civilians in Idlib and northern parts of Syria and bring a functional political structure and economy to the country.
The EU needs to overcome its psychological barriers about refugees and not surrender to the far right. The idea of giving Turkey money to look after the refugees is not right. They have yet to even take in refugees returning from the refugee deal in 2016. There is a huge divide within themselves. There are countries like Austria and Hungary that have announced that they will not open their border to a single refugee in any way. We can convey the following message to these countries: We, Turks, have been living with 3-4 million refugees for five years. Certainly, there have been hard times for us in big cities. We have experienced accommodation problems, language barriers, security problems and economic problems. Moreover, we are not to blame for the Syrian war. This is a burden on our shoulders. However, it is not true that refugees steal welfare from wherever they go and bring chaos and disorder there. First and foremost, refugees are a dynamic population, with a high percentage of young people. There is also a population among them that helps stimulate production and consumption in Turkey. Integration problems are experienced everywhere, however. Turkey has adopted an inclusive humanitarian approach rather than a security approach, in which refugees are considered a “threat.” If Syria were not our neighbor, we would not have received 4 million refugees today. It is the European countries’ choice to deal with this de facto situation in a humanitarian way or not. We know they believe that there is sensitive public opinion in Europe about refugees and that they still believe in something called European values. Assad is a war criminal who has committed war crimes in eastern Ghouta and in Aleppo. However, your governments are silent against it and have an irresponsible wayward attitude about it. We have been living with 4 million Syrians for five years and nothing is happening: Do not be afraid. Neither the political system has been overthrown nor has our country been weakened by their presence. The more we have shared, the more we have owned. Refugees should remind us of our responsibilities instead of reminding us of what we can lose in a selfish manner. This is the attitude we expect from the European public.
[Daily Sabah, 6 March 2020]