Syrian Refugees, Erdogan’s Last Card in Syria?

As the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in the Turkish capital Ankara earlier this week, the critical situation of Idlib, the refugee crisis and the issue of a safe zone in northern Syria were top topics on the discussions’ agenda. The three major regional and international players/guarantors, however, do not necessarily endorse the same strategy and have some serious differences regarding these and other aspects of the Syria conflict.

There was limited common ground for the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran who met on Monday. This drove them to try to secure a lasting truce in northwestern Syria following recent major advances by the Syrian army that resulted in liberating 700 square kilometres in Hama and Idlib provinces, amid fears of a new wave of refugees heading mainly towards Turkey. Thousands of Syrian locals have recently marched and chanted slogans against Turkish president Erdogan and the Turkish army, storming the two main border gates in Idlib, Bab al Hawa and Atama, where they were confronted with tear gas and warning fires by Turkish border police.

Turkey hosts some 3.5 million Syrian migrants, the largest number of refugees who fled main battlegrounds, destruction and violence throughout the nearly nine years of war in Syria. Another approximately 2 million refugees have resettled in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, with the poorest having to endure the harsh conditions present in refugee camps.

Discrepancies in Summit Agendas

The summit in Ankara was a continuation of similar trilateral meetings in Tehran and Sochi bringing together countries whose Syrian allies are combatants in a ruinous Syrian conflict. Despite mutual agreement on some measures regarding easing up tension in Syrian territories still prone to military action, and averting any escalation that could lead to mass displacement of civilian population, a number of serious disagreements remain between the the three leaders, mainly regarding the rule of Assad and the issue of a new constitution in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani have backed president Assad against various terrorist and rebel groups. Whereas Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with the United States, European and Arab allies, has supported different rebel factions in the war that have devastated large sectors of the Syrian economy, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and displaced over 6 million Syrians both internally and externally.

Aided by Russian airpower, the Syrian army has regained control of most lands lost in the war. In recent months, Assad’s forces have attacked rogue areas held by terror groups in Hama and Idlib, where Turkey, under a deal set up 2 years ago with Moscow and Tehran set up 12 military observation posts in northwest Syria aimed at reducing tension and averting a major operation by Assad’s forces and rebels. The Turkish military posts have recently been caught in the crossfire due to the Syrian offensive in the region.

Recent Syrian army advances Turkish-backed rebel groups in the region close to the Turkish borders have strained ties between presidents Putin and Erdogan who had agreed at talks in Moscow in August to “normalise” the situation in the region, after Syrian troops encircled rebels and a Turkish post in Hama, a move Ankara said threatened its national security.

Risk of New Migrant Waves

Fears over an almost inevitable new major wave of refugees in the direction of Turkey have increased following the fierce battles fought in northwestern Syria. Over 2 million civilians inhabit the Idlib province along with an estimated 70000 hardline terror and rebel fighters, making the crucial battle for Idlib even more complicated and costly by any criteria.

The rebel bastion of Idlib has been prone to even extra pressure of migrant influx since last April, as over 400.000 have taken refuge there and next to the Syrian-Turkish borderline, running away from the latest spate of fighting according to the United Nations. Turkey, which was worst hit by migrant waves in the past, claims it can handle no more refugees unless Ankara receives more international support. Erdogan has frequently played the refugee card with the west, threatening to “open the gates” for migrants to Europe.

Erdogan Acknowledges ‘Terrorists’ in Idlib Exist

Acknowledging the existence of ‘terrorist’ groups in Idlib, Erdogan explained his expectations before last Monday’s trilateral summit: “The expectation here is not a momentary ceasefire. First, it is to put a stop to the migration here,”. “Second, to ensure a ceasefire here. Third, to seriously get terrorist organisations under control.” “Turkey, which is hosting 3.6 million refugees in its home at the moment, cannot take the millions of people that will arrive from there,” Erdogan said. “We cannot carry that weight,” he told Reuters.

Two days later, the Syrian army shelled rebel targets south of Idlib as terrorists breached the current ceasefire which was announced around two weeks ago to give talks yet another chance. The Syrian government maintains that its army is ready to wage the major Idlib battle should talks fail to oust all terrorists and rebel groups from the area. Military plans are in place to liberate the last inch of Syrian territory which Syrian President Assad has reiterated on numerous occasions. The vast majority of pro-Assad population have been critical of truces and ceasefires, particularly when the Syrian army makes some major advances.

Safe Zone, Or No Safe Future!

Erdogan and Trump have recently announced the establishment of the controversial “safe zone” in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, jointly patrolled by American and Turkish troops. Erdogan plans to resettle up to 1 million refugees in the zone along the Turkish borders. Previously he threatened a unilateral Turkish military operation against US-backed Kurdish YPG in the area. Trump responded by a threat of his own to ” devastate Turkish economy” should Turkey attack Kurdish areas in northeast Syria.

In the wake of a politically-embarrassing year for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) which has seen him suffer some stunning local election losses, partly due to impatience among Turks over the issue of Syrian refugees. amidst a series of hostilities against migrants in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, the refugee card might prove detrimental, in addition to growing economic decline, in the demise of the overwhelming dictatorship-like grip Erdogan has enjoyed for years, as well as in deciding the political future of Turkey’s most powerful man since Ataturk, the father of the Turkish republic.