x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Turkey fears refugee influx

Ankara is worried about a wave of Syrians fleeing the ongoing conflict in their homeland between government forces and protesters that has killed more than 550 people.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, sent a top diplomatic team to Damascus last week in order to help organise political and economical change in Syria. Mr Erdogan has increased pressure on President Bashar al Assad to reform his government to appease demonstrators.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, sent a top diplomatic team to Damascus last week in order to help organise political and economical change in Syria. Mr Erdogan has increased pressure on President Bashar al Assad to reform his government to appease demonstrators.

ISTANBUL // Turkey is urging Syria to end its crackdown on dissent, an expression of growing Turkish concern about a crisis on its borders.

Syria so far has defied international calls to stop the violence.Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says the world should work to avoid an intervention like that in Libya, saying it might lead to complex problems.

Concerns over an influx of refugees has led to Turkey to begin factoring in a future without Bashar al Assad as Syria's president.

More than 250 Syrians have crossed the border into southern Turkey since Friday, Turkish news media reported yesterday. The group, which included women and children, was given shelter in a sports complex and later moved to tents erected by the Turkish Red Crescent in the province of Hatay. The refugees were to be given three meals a day, the report said.

Turkey shares a border of almost 900 kilometres with Syria and media reports have highlighted concerns about a possible wave of Syrian refugees.

"Fears have come true," the website of the CNN-Turk news channel said about the Syrians in Hatay, the first group to arrive since protests began in March. Yesterday, news reports put the number of Syrians that have arrived at 263. Turkish authorities were not allowing media interviews with the Syrians for fear of retributions against them after an eventual return to their country, the reports said.

Although the number of Syrian refugees appears to be relatively small at the moment, Turkish authorities are preparing for a much bigger influx. The Turkish Red Crescent has sent more than 1,000 tents as well as 8,500 blankets to Hatay, according to the Vatan newspaper.

Reflecting concerns in Ankara, Turkish politicians have been addressing the Syria issue.

Turkey is against foreign intervention in Syria and believes the country should solve its own problems, Anatolia news agency quoted Mr Davutoglu as saying yesterday.

"We should work to prevent the possibility [of military intervention]. Foreign intervention in a country like Syria … might cause unwanted consequences," Mr Davutoglu said.

"Syria should solve the issue by itself. The chance for this still exists so it should not be missed."

Lifting the state of emergency in Syria was not enough, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, told reporters in Ankara last Wednesday, after he spoke to Mr al Assad by telephone. "There are many more steps that have to be taken in Syria," he added.

"We do not want anti-democratic methods there, especially no system based on authoritarianism and totalitarianism."

Last week, political and military leaders in Ankara took up the situation in Syria in a regular meeting of the National Security Council. Thursday's meeting lasted almost seven hours and is reported to have dealt with a possible fall of the Assad regime.

Leaders in Ankara had all but lost hope for speedy reforms in Syria, Murat Yetkin, a well-connected columnist for the Radikal daily, wrote after the meeting of the council, referred to as MGK after its Turkish initials. "This is why MGK dealt with the situation that will arise with the possibility that Assad goes."

No Turkish official has publicly said that Ankara, one of Syria's most important partners, wants Mr al Assad to step down. Mr Erdogan has publicly called for the resignation of leaders in other Middle Eastern countries, but has refrained from doing so in the case of Syria. Mr Erdogan's remark about the danger of totalitarianism in Syria indicates that Turkey is losing patience with Damascus.

"Judging from official statements, Turkey will not stand by the Syrian regime unconditionally," the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or Orsam, a think-tank in Ankara, said in a report last week.

An all-out civil war in Syria would turn the country into a "new Iraq on Turkey's border", the report said, adding that one of the risks is the end of Turkish-Syrian co-operation in the fight against Kurdish rebels. A peaceful transition of power in Syria, on the other hand, would benefit Turkey, the report said.

The MGK, in a written declaration issued after the meeting, urged the Syrians to enact promised reforms and to stop using violence against demonstrators. The statement was a "warning" to Syria, Turkish news reports said.

Mr Erdogan said he conveyed Turkey's concern about the violence in Syria to Mr al Assad. The pro-government Sabah newspaper reported that Mr Erdogan called on the Syrian president to introduce a multiparty system. Mr Erdogan also talked to Barack Obama, the US president, about the situation in Syria. Turkey is concerned that possible western sanctions against Syria could hurt its own economy.

Turkish leaders have heard repeated promises of reform by Mr al Assad. In late March, Mr Erdogan publicly declared after a telephone conversation with Mr Assad that the Syrian president would lift the state of emergency within days. In fact, that step came only last Tuesday.

Ankara's pressure on Syria is flanked by offers of help in organising political and economic change. Mr Erdogan sent Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey's intelligence service, who is so close to Mr Erdogan that he's been called Turkey's "second foreign minister", and other officials to Damascus last week.

Mr Fidan's delegation included a high-ranking official from Turkey's state planning agency who was charged with explaining to Syrian officials how to implement reforms. After his return from Syria, Mr Fidan briefed the other members of the National Security Council in Ankara.

"We have told Syria to act on the reforms and that we are ready to help them," a Turkish diplomat wrote in response to a question.

According to Turkish newspapers, Mr Fidan's delegation presented Syria with a blueprint for reform.

The government in Damascus should take steps for a more transparent and accountable government, open the economy to end the grip of the al Assad family on key economic assets and reform the security services. Contacts between the two governments are expected to continue.

The Orsam study said Turkish efforts to influence Syria by calling for more democracy and transparency could backfire. The regime in Damascus could decide to seek closer ties with Iran, the study said.