$27 bln needed for return of 1 mln Syrians to safe zone

$27 bln needed for return of 1 mln Syrians to safe zone

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has concluded his week-long trip to New York where he attended the 74th United Nations General Assembly and held bilateral meetings with many world leaders.

Erdoğan was expecting to hold a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump but had to content himself with a brief phone conservation and a quick word during the closure reception of the General Assembly. The Turkish side was paying utmost importance to this meeting because it was hoping to clear some remaining obstacles before setting up the safe zone in northeastern Syria in line with Ankara’s demands.

Erdoğan previously had warned the United States that it would have to act unilaterally into northeastern Syria if the U.S. stalls on the process until the end of September. Ankara is now hoping that a phone conversation between the two leaders will soon take place before the Turkish government decides how it will move forward.

President Erdoğan met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of the General Assembly. One of the top issues the two leaders discussed was an ongoing Turkey-EU migrant deal in the context of the Idlib conflict from where a new massive refugee influx could threaten both Turkey and the European Union. In an interview with reporters traveling with him, Erdoğan said he handed a booklet detailing Turkey’s plans to return at least 1 million Syrians to the safe zone onto his interlocutors during talks in New York, including Merkel.

Turkey’s plan seeks to set up new residential areas in the 480-kilometer-long safe zone where Syrians would do agriculture and stockbreeding. The implementation of the ambitious plan would cost an estimated $27 billion. Turkey aims to generate this amount of money from European and oil-rich countries for the Turkish construction companies which will be tasked with undertaking this responsibility.

There are important questions to be answered about this plan. Why would all these countries donate money to a temporary settlement project? Any project that is not part of the reconstruction of Syria would hardly receive support. The Europeans have made clear that no euros will be devoted to Syria’s reconstruction before seeing the start of a genuine political transition process. Still, Erdoğan hopes to discuss this plan with Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit he would host in October.

Another question concerns the social and political consequences of the implementation of the plan. The area where these residential places would be established are originally Kurdish dominated, but those who hope to return are predominantly Arab. That would potentially ignite fresh ethnic problems.

Turkey wants to launch a new negotiation over the refugees with the Europeans, but to what extent this plan will receive support needs yet to be seen.