Turkish PM’s three key messages on Syria

Turkish PM’s three key messages on Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has delivered three key messages on the Turkish government’s Syria policy on the eve of meetings set to take place in the Russian city of Sochi between the Syrian regime and opposition groups on Jan. 29 and 30.

Answering the questions of a group of guests from the fields of politics, civil society, business, diplomacy, culture and media on Jan. 26 at an event hosted by Istanbul’s Beyoğlu District Mayor Misbah Demircan in the historic Pera Palace, Yıldırım also gave icebreaking signals on Turkey’s relations with the European Union. But the focus of the meeting was Turkey’s military campaign in Syria.

What Yıldırım said could be categorized under three titles:

• The aim of the operation: Yıldırım said the operation, launched on Jan. 20 and named “Operation Olive Branch,” did not aim at Syria’s territorial integrity. On the contrary, he said, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syria branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - all of which Turkey is fighting against - were trying to carve out parts of Syria. Turkey would pull out as soon as the terror threat on its borders with Syria is eliminated and the people of Syria win. Yıldırım also refuted the PKK and its affiliates’ claims that the operation was targeting Kurds. “We are not against Kurdish groups being in the future of Syria and taking part in the Sochi talks,” he said. “But no terror groups.” He also said there was 89 percent popular support for the operation, according to a recent survey, which resembles an atmosphere just like after the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is the only party in parliament opposing the operation. 

• The row with the U.S. over the YPG: “What the Americans keep telling us is that their cooperation with the PKK/YPG against ISIL was ‘not a choice, but a necessity,’” Yıldırım said. “And they are telling us that they would collect the weapons given to them when they are done. Does that sound convincing to you? They are not selling arms to us, a NATO ally, but are delivering weapons to terrorists for free. On top of this, they announce the formation of an army of 30,000 members on our borders, which are also NATO borders. I don’t understand this. This is enmity. Turkey cannot allow this, no matter who is behind it, what its name is and how powerful it is. In Afrin, our aim is to clear terrorists from there. Regarding Manbij, there are American soldiers there. We don’t want to get into a clash with U.S. soldiers. Therefore, we are still waiting for them to keep the promises they made to us [to pull YPG out of the town, to the east of the Euphrates River]. For the time being, we are focused on Afrin.”

• The future of Syria and the regime: Yıldırım’s comments on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the future of the country signals a shift in the Syria policy of his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, probably under the effect of Russia’s backing for “Operation Olive Branch.” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu earlier has said that prior to the decision to launch a military operation the Syrian regime was contacted through Russia. On the issue, Yıldırım said: “Turkey wants this [Syrian] war to come to an end. We are not in direct contact with the [al-Assad] regime. Since the beginning of the war hundreds and thousands of people were killed and millions were displaced. We see it impossible for Syria to be ruled by the regime again. But we can go nowhere by ignoring the regime. Of course, the regime will take part in the solution, but all groups in Syria will have to take part in the new Syria, except terrorist groups. They won’t have any place.”

Yıldırım also answered questions on the atmosphere of rights and freedoms under the state of emergency in Turkey and its relations with the EU as follows:

• “Although there is no direct effect of the emergency rule on the lives of the ordinary men on the streets, we are aware that there is a perception from the outside which affects the investment environment. The state of emergency will not go on forever. We are learning our lessons and are spotting the areas we still need to improve and we don’t need any longer. But we are still recovering from the traumas of the military coup attempt [July 15, 2016] which we defeated. The real struggle started after that. You discover every day that a person who has been working very close to you is a member of FETÖ [the illegal network of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher who is accused of masterminding the coup attempt]. We are set to submit a new judicial reform package to parliament,” he said. 

• “We observe the European countries are showing an understanding for the Afrin operation, like most of the world, which we appreciate. Relations with the EU are recovering. 2017 has been a year with problems due to reactions to the referendum campaign in Turkey and the election campaigns in Europe. I do want to have a Turkey-EU summit in the first half of this year, but I am not that sure. We have to talk about the 2016 migration agreement with the EU. Out of the 71 articles, we completed 66 of them, and are waiting for the EU to fulfill some of them; for example, sharing the refugee burden. We are aware of the EU’s expectations from Turkey, such as the anti-terror law for which they think we should draw a balanced line between security and freedoms, rather than focus on security. We are aiming for that as well,” he added.

Murat Yetkin, hdn, Opinion