Spotlight: Turkey's Erdogan hopes for EU support in Syria by raising refugee threat: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2019-02-23 18:14:44|Editor: Liangyu
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ISTANBUL, Feb. 23 (Xinhua) -- The thinly veiled threat against Europe made lately by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over refugees is aimed at pushing the European Union to pressure Russia against a military operation on the Syrian province of Idlib, support Ankara's plan for a security zone in Syria and financially share its refugee burden, analysts told Xinhua.

If the millions of Syrians in Turkey cannot be returned to safe zones to be built in their homeland, Europe will sooner or later have the refugee problem at its door, Erdogan told an international audience on Tuesday.

The EU would take it as blackmail and respond strongly if Turkey was implying an exit from the migrant deal with the bloc to let the Syrians go on to Europe, said Haldun Solmazturk, a security and foreign policy analyst.

Turkey officially hosts around 4 million refugees, among them over 2.6 million Syrians displaced by years-old war.

Ankara signed a deal with Brussels at the end of 2015 to stop the mass flow of irregular migrants to Europe via Turkey. Under the deal updated in March 2016, the EU agrees to provide financial aid for Syrians in Turkey, offer visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and revive Ankara's long-stalled accession talks in return for Turkish efforts to block the irregular migration to Europe.

Solmazturk, who chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, feels that Erdogan's remarks are no more than wishful thinking and that Ankara is unlikely to get what it wants as far as the security zone or the expected Idlib offensive is concerned.

"It's unfounded to expect Russia to give up its impending offensive on Idlib as a result of EU pressure," he argued.

"Russia would pay no attention to EU pressure as long as it decides to carry out the operation," echoed Celalettin Yavuz, a security and foreign policy analyst with Istanbul Ayvansaray University.

Both Solmazturk and Yavuz expect Moscow to launch an offensive against the jihadist rebels in Idlib following Turkey's local elections on March 31.

Despite partners in the so-called Astana process aiming at a political settlement of the Syrian conflict, Moscow has been growingly impatient with Ankara's failure to limit the radical jihadist groups' control in Idlib and to stop them from carrying out attacks on Russian and Syrian army positions as set out under a deal concluded last September.

"Erdogan knows the Idlib operation will come following the local elections and so he is sending a message to the EU beforehand," said Solmazturk, a former general in the Turkish military.

Turkey is concerned that a major offensive in Idlib, where some of the rebel groups are close to Ankara, would send a fresh wave of migrants toward its borders.

Yavuz feels that Ankara does not want Damascus to take control of Idlib before free elections are called following a political settlement in Syria.

The Turkish military and its allied Syrian rebels kicked out the Islamic State and the Kurdish militia from areas in northwestern Syria in two separate operations.

Russia's Sputnik news agency on Thursday quoted Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as saying that Damascus was preparing to take back Idlib from the rebels.

Earlier this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mihail Bogdanov said a military operation on the rebels in Idlib seemed inevitable.

Under a deal with Russia, the Turkish military has set up a dozen observation posts in Idlib, the last major stronghold for the rebels.

In the view of Solmazturk, Ankara's push for a security zone under its control in northeastern Syria has no chance of success either, as Turkey does not have the capacity to impose a buffer zone in Syria under the current circumstances.

Neither Washington nor Moscow is known to favor a security zone under Turkish control in Syria.

As the world is watching how Washington is executing its decision to withdraw troops from Syria, the Pentagon revealed late Friday that hundreds of U.S. troops would remain in Syria following the pullout as part of a U.S. safe zone plan in the Kurdish militia-held territory.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted an unidentified U.S. defense official as saying that neither Turkish troops nor fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would join the safe zone project.

The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara says is the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party.

Ankara vehemently opposes any suggestion of a safe zone that offers protection to the YPG.

In the planned security zone, Turkey wants to build new housing to resettle the Syrian refugees on its soil.

"This is the most practical solution to ensure the return of the Syrian refugees," Erdogan said, noting such a formula would work only if the security zone is under Turkish control with other countries offering financial and logistic support.

"We will soon put this formula into action on the ground," the Turkish leader said, adding the military had completed preparations for another cross-border operation.

Ankara has deployed troops and armored vehicles along its border with Syria for an operation to eliminate the YPG despite Washington's vowed support for it.

"Erdogan's remarks are a call on the EU for both diplomatic and financial support for an Ankara-dominated safe zone in northeastern Syria," remarked Yavuz.

Living conditions in the safe zone to be established should be appealing to the Syrians for them to return, he said.

"In case of a fresh wave of migrants (from Syria), we won't be able to withstand that alone anymore," Erdogan said, underlining that the support offered by European countries for a safe zone would contribute to their own national security as well.

Ankara says it has so far spent, based on UN criteria, over 37 billion U.S. dollars on the Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The establishment of a Kurdish state in the region is strategically much more important for the EU than the threat of refugees, stated Solmazturk.

It is widely argued that the U.S. is seeking to carve out a quasi-state entity for the Kurds in northeastern Syria, where the YPG has set up self-declared autonomous areas.