Syrians in Turkey fear the worst as Erdogan changes tone on Assad

Syrian refugees have become at the center of political debate in Turkey ahead of next year’s elections. Calls to repatriate them to war-torn Syria were once the cause of fringe right-wing parties, but have now become common as the country recovers from an economic crisis.

“There is no prerequisite for dialogue [with Syria] », Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview last week. « What matters most is the goal and the target of this dialogue, » he told Turkish TV. HaberGlobal.

His comments marked a sea change from Ankara’s stance over the past decade. Turkey has been a key supporter of the Syrian opposition and armed factions that fought to overthrow the Assad regime there, and it intervened militarily in the conflict. The Turkish military maintains a presence across its border with Syria and in areas inside Syria it controls along with Syrian opposition forces.

Cavusoglu made the comments just days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that « diplomacy can never be interrupted » with Damascus and that Ankara must « ensure further steps with Syria ». Ankara’s goal, he added, was not to defeat Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Just ten years ago, Erdogan described the Assad regime as a « terrorist » regime that would « pay the price » for Syrian lives lost in the war. He also vowed to pray in the famous Umayyad mosque in Damascus, suggesting the regime would be overthrown.
Turkey has recalibrated its foreign policy over the past year to strengthen ties and reconcile with neighbors including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Turkish officials also appear to be trying to restore ties with Egypt, whose ruling regime toppled a democratically elected, Turkish-backed Islamist government.

This softening of Ankara’s stance also comes as several Arab states turn the page on the war in Syria and welcome Assad’s return to the region.

The conciliatory statements by Turkish officials, however, are a calculated measure aimed at the domestic public ahead of next year’s election, Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN.

“We are heading towards elections, [Erdogan’s] the numbers look very uncertain and the refugee issue seems to be one of the main concerns of Turkish voters from all political walks of life, including its own base,” she said.

Anti-refugee sentiment has grown in Turkey in recent months. The country hosts the largest refugee population in the world and faces a worsening economic crisis with inflation approaching 80%, the highest in nearly three decades. According to the United Nations, the nation of 86 million hosts around 4 million registered refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrians.

“Refugees are the scapegoat,” Aydintasbas said. “There is no economic or even real reason for this, but people, when [they’re] unemployed, when [they see] declining purchasing power, find refugees a convenient scapegoat. »

Observers and rights groups say Turkey is unlikely to return Syrians to their country if it is unsafe for them, due to international treaties protecting the rights of refugees. But they expect it will continue to be used as a tool to rally support from all parties ahead of next year’s vote.

« This whole idea of ​​starting a political dialogue is to reassure voters that the government is doing something, [and] has plans for the repatriation of Syrians, although that is unlikely to happen,” Aydintasbas said.

Despite assurances from the Turkish government that there will be no forced returns, many Syrians in Turkey fear being forced to return. Residents of opposition-held areas of Syria fear that their areas will be returned to Syrian government forces.

« We will be executed one by one without any hesitation because we started this revolution, » Ammar Abu Hamzeh, 38, a father of four in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab, told CNN. « If the regime comes to the liberated areas, either we will die or we will have to flee with our families to Europe via Turkey. »

Both the ruling party and the opposition in Ankara have suggested that normalization with the Assad regime is needed to settle Turkey’s refugee problem.

When Turkey’s foreign minister first hinted at reconciliation earlier this month and revealed he had a brief meeting with his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines of a conference last year, it sparked outrage in the last remaining part of rebel-held Syria.

A Syrian from Istanbul described the fear in his community in the face of uncertainty. He spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity due to his own precarious status in both countries.

« [Erdogan] wants to win the election and we will pay the price,” he said. “If Erdogan wins, they probably won’t fire us without guarantees, but if the opposition wins, they will probably open the doors and fire us all. We will have to consider going to other countries. »

Gestures to the Syrian regime would likely be part of Erdogan’s election promise, Aydintasbas said. « It’s very unlikely to move forward, apart from the banter between Turkey and Damascus. »

CNN’s Isil Sariyuce and Celine Al-Khaldi contributed to this article.

The summary

Powerful Iraqi cleric Sadr says he is quitting politics

Powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Monday he was quitting politics and closing his institutions in response to a political stalemate. « I hereby announce my final withdrawal, » he said. tweeted. Hundreds of protesters inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone attempted to storm the Republican Palace, security officials told CNN on Monday.
  • Background: Considered the kingmaker of Iraqi politics, Sadr withdrew his deputies from parliament in June after failing to form a government of his own choosing. A political stalemate between him and his Iran-backed Shia rivals has given Iraq its longest period without a government.
  • Why is this important: Since late July, Sadr supporters have occupied parliament and demonstrated near government buildings, halting the process of selecting a new president and prime minister. The announcement raised fears that they could escalate their protests, fueling a new phase of instability.

Iran reiterates closure of UN probe as it asks to revive nuclear deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said « a nuclear deal is meaningless » unless an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into unexplained traces of uranium at Iranian sites is resolved.

  • Background: Iran demanded closure of an investigation by the UN nuclear watchdog into traces of uranium found at undeclared research sites before agreeing to fully implement a proposal to to revive the 2015 nuclear pact abandoned by the Trump administration.
  • why is it important: The investigation is the only major sticking point in the talks and risks prolonging an already long effort to reach an agreement. Iran has dropped some demands, including delisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, a senior US official told CNN earlier this month.

Turkish pop star to be placed under house arrest after his detention sparked outrage

A Turkish court has ruled that pop star Gulsen should now be placed under house arrest, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday, after the singer’s official arrest four days ago for a joke about religious schools was aroused outrage.

  • Background: Gulsen was jailed pending trial on Thursday for inciting hatred, after a video of her comments from four months ago surfaced on a website of a pro-government newspaper, Sabah , a day earlier. Several ministers condemned his comments on Twitter. She denied the accusation and apologized to those offended by her remarks.
  • Why is this important: Thousands of people took to social media to support Gulsen, saying she was targeted for her support for LGBT+ rights and liberal views that run counter to those of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Tweet of the day

A video showing a Turkish sports commentator being slapped by a live chat on TV has gone viral in the country.

Huseyin Ozkok was talking football live on A Spor channel on Saturday when a cat appeared behind him and slapped him.

« You have a little guest it seems? » Did you bring your cat? the anchor laughed.

Ozkok replied that he was invited to the cat’s house.

He then shared a photo of the cat. « This is Oli, our brash boyfriend who hit me with a right hook in the air, » he tweeted. « When he was very small and about to die, he was found in a dumpster and brought back to life. Let’s take care of the animals. Let’s not call the bad guys animals. »

Photo of the day

Models present the latest collection during the Jimmy Fashion Show, where local and international fashion designers launched their collections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Friday.  Saudi designers have faced difficulties in the past before easing restrictions in the kingdom, having to travel abroad to showcase their work.

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