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Turkey’s rapprochement with Syria leaves regional refugees fearful

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Syrians across the opposition and in the Kurdish north of the country have reacted with alarm to Turkish moves to normalise relations with Damascus amid claims the overtures will lead to mass demographic swaps and the forced return of millions of refugees.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over the weekend added his voice to a growing chorus of officials who had markedly shifted rhetoric on Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, claiming: “Political dialogue or diplomacy cannot be cut off between states.”

He was followed on Tuesday by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who said Ankara would not set “conditions for dialogue” with Syria, being guided instead by achieving its goals. “The country needs to be cleared of terrorists… People need to be able to return,” he told broadcaster Haber Global.

The remarks were the clearest signal yet that Turkey has embarked on a new policy that intends to stabilise Assad, after being a chief regional proponent of his ousting for more than a decade.

It came on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the war’s greatest atrocity, the gassing of close to 1,300 civilians in an opposition area in the outer suburbs of Damascus with sarin shells on 21 August 2013.

In the years since, Russia and Iran have ushered Assad into a pyrrhic victory on the country’s battlefields.

The two states and Turkey now have a prominent stake in a fractured post-war country where large parts of the population remain outside the control of the central government.

In the north-west, however, the guns of war continued to blaze this week, with Russian airstrikes on Monday targeting 13 different sites in Idlib province, where the bulk of the country’s anti-Assad opposition, or those forced out of their homes as part of so-called reconciliation deals, continue to shelter among hardline groups.

The airstrikes were among the most intensive since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diverted jets used to bomb Syria to a new conflict. Casualty numbers were unknown.

Erdoğan has previously staunchly opposed Russian bombings in Idlib, where Turkey has established significant influence, but the new attacks met no reaction from Ankara, which has drawn closer to Vladimir Putin’s view of a solution for Syria in recent months.

The Turkish leader is understood to have been dissuaded from launching a new incursion into the Kurdish north-east of Syria last month after speaking to Putin during a summit in Sochi. After failing to win Putin’s blessing, Erdoğan has appeared to reach for diplomacy with Syria, while launching drone strikes against what his intelligence officials said are Kurdish rebels.

One such strike struck a volleyball game near the city of Hasakah last week, killing four girls and injuring seven others.

Kurdish groups in the north-east, backed by the Kurdistan workers’ party (PKK), have been bracing for a fresh Turkish incursion, which they fear aims to carve out a new sphere of influence along the border with Turkey, into which Ankara will transfer Arab refugees who have been hosted in Turkey over the past decade.

Erdoğan faces an election next year in which anti-refugee sentiment is running high as he struggles to deal with a flatlining economy and simmering social unrest. Turkey has already announced plans to send up to 1 million refugees back to Syria, and has funded the construction of homes in areas between Kurds in the north-west and north-east, effectively creating a wedge between them.

Direct contact with Assad is unlikely to happen soon, but officials, including intelligence figures, are expected to resume cooperation. “This will be phased,” said a senior official based in Beirut. “The messaging from the Turks is very clear. They want to deal with the PKK, and Assad now has some leverage with them for the first time. But it’s all brokered through Putin though, so he shouldn’t push it too far.”

More than half of Syria’s prewar population remains internally displaced, or outside Syria’s borders, where most remain unwilling to return, citing dangers posed at home by regime officials who they believe will shake them down financially and detain them arbitrarily.

A senior Kurdish official in north-eastern Syria on Monday described Turkey’s rapprochement with Assad as a “trick”

“Turkey has never supported the Syrian revolution,” said Ilham Ahmad, a member of the region’s executive council. “It used it to serve its expansionist agendas based on colonialism and demographic changes. Turkey used Syrian refugees.”

The UN and NGOs have insisted that Syria remains unsafe to return to for many who fled persecution throughout the war. Lebanon too has shifted its rhetoric towards Syrians sheltering in the country, with community attitudes turning hostile in some areas and refugees being forced to hide to avoid arrest.

“I’d rather try my chances in this broken place than go to Bashar’s prisons,” said Mustafa Hilani, a Syrian who has lived in Beirut for the past six years. “There is no life there.”

Source : The Guardian