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Will Erdogan hand the refugees back to the Syrian regime?

January 5, 2023 at 10:27 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech his message for the new year in Ankara, Turkiye on December 29, 2022. [TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]

Last week, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met with his Russian and Syrian counterparts, Sergei Shoigu and Ali Mahmoud Abbas respectively, in Moscow, in what was the first official contact between Ankara and Damascus at the ministerial level in eleven years. The heads of Turkish and Syrian intelligence were also there.

The Moscow meeting came after statements made by Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the roadmap to normalisation with the Syrian regime. Erdogan had mentioned that the intelligence services of Turkiye and Syria are holding meetings, and that their defence ministers could meet first, followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers. The normalisation efforts could be crowned with a meeting that brings him face to face with Bashar Al-Assad. According to this suggested way forward, therefore, the next stop on the normalisation train will be a meeting between foreign ministers Mevlut Cavusoglu and Faisal Mekdad.

The tripartite meeting in Moscow raised fears among Syrian refugees in Turkiye, as well as those living in the liberated areas of northern Syria. The Syrian opposition also expressed dissatisfaction with the meeting, which indicates an ongoing normalisation process between Ankara and Damascus. Opposition officials pointed out that Assad does not represent the Syrian people and that the revolution will continue until the fall of his violent regime.

Such fears are legitimate, and the opposition’s rejection of any reconciliation with the Assad regime is justified, because the regime cannot be reformed. Returning to its embrace means surrendering to the killers and accepting torture and execution.

READ: US ‘opposes’ Turkiye’s normalisation of ties with Syria regime

Turkiye also has legitimate concerns related to its national security, the first of which comes from areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) affiliated with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), supported by the US. Its opponents point to the relations between the Syrian regime and the PKK, but what is certain is that the US support for the terrorist organisation constitutes a threat to Turkiye’s security, stability and territorial integrity, and is greater than the danger of relations between the Syrian regime and the PKK. It is the US that saved the Syrian regime by preventing the rebels from obtaining advanced weapons to protect the Syrian people from being massacred. We cannot understand the reality of the recent Turkish steps without understanding this equation, just as it is unreasonable to ask Turkiye to ignore that threat and not to make its elimination a top priority.

Ankara realises that the Syrian regime does not have much to offer Turkiye, and at the same time it wants to wait for the results of the Turkish presidential election later this year. The election might result in defeat for Erdogan and victory for the opposition candidate who is promising to withdraw Turkish forces from Syria and expel refugees to the country, and even pay compensation to Damascus. Hence, Turkiye is in Moscow under Russian pressure, and has been forced to abandon all preconditions.

Nevertheless, Turkiye will not withdraw its forces from Syria in the near future. It also still supports the opponents of the Syrian regime and listens to their opinions, and does not seek to impose a solution that does not satisfy them. This was confirmed by Defence Minister Akar, who said, “There is no question of us taking any steps against our [Syrian] brothers living in Turkiye and Syria. We have never taken any action that would create difficulties for them, and we will not do so in the future.” However, the Syrian regime is spreading rumours and lies, as part of its psychological warfare that aims to destroy the morale of the opposition groups and drive a wedge between them and Turkiye, claiming that Ankara has accepted all of Assad’s demands, which the Turks deny categorically.

There is another matter that requires Turkiye to take actions such as it has done recently, which is the country’s turnout for very important presidential and parliamentary elections. In these sensitive circumstances, Erdogan needs to pull the refugee card from the hands of the opposition, which it exploited in the recent local elections, and must show a desire to solve the refugee problem and secure their return to their country. This does not mean that they will be expelled, though, and handed over to the Syrian regime, with the hell which that implies.

READ: Syria opposition uneasy after Turkish, Syrian defence ministers meet

In one of his speeches, Erdogan told the story of the Boraltan Bridge massacre as evidence of the mentality of the Republican People’s Party. It took place in 1945 when 195 Azerbaijanis fled Stalin’s oppression to Turkiye via the Boraltan Bridge, and the Turkish government headed by Ismet Inonu handed them back at the request of the Soviet Union, only for them to be executed immediately on the other bank of the Aras River. It was a disgrace for Turkiye. There is no doubt that the President of the Turkish Republic, who condemns that massacre, will not accept a similar occurrence now, nor will he hand over the refugees to the Syrian regime, and that his manoeuvres are intended to remove the threat to the security of his country. His actions also aim to create safe conditions for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their country with Turkish and UN guarantees.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 4 January 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.