ISTANBUL – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the Turkish border so he can resettle up to 2 million refugees there, his spokesman told the Associated Press on Saturday. The request will top Erdogan’s talks next week with Syria’s ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Arrangements along the Syrian-Turkish border were thrown into disarray after the U.S. pulled its troops out of the area, opening the door to Turkey’s invasion aiming to drive out Kurdish-led fighters it considers terrorists.
Abandoned by the U.S., the Kurds — with Russia’s mediation — invited President Bashar Assad to send troops into northeastern Syria as protection from Turkish forces. That has complicated Turkey’s plan to create what it calls a “safe zone” along the border, where it can resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey.
Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Ankara does not want either Syrian forces nor Kurdish fighters in the border area because refugees would not go back to areas under their control. Turkey has said it wants to oversee that area.
“This is one of the topics that we will discuss with the Russians, because, again, we are not going to force any refugees to go to anywhere they don’t want to go,” he said. “We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe.”
Turkey has taken in about 3.6 million Syrians fleeing their homeland but now wants most of them to return. So far, very few have returned to an enclave Turkey has controlled since 2017.
Under an agreement made by the U.S. and Turkey on Thursday, a five-day cease-fire has been in place. Turkey expects the Kurdish fighters to pull back from a border area.
A senior Syrian Kurdish official acknowledged for the first time that the Kurdish-led forces agreed to the pullback, stating that his forces will move 19 miles south of the border.
Redur Khalil, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces official, told the AP that the withdrawal will take place once Turkey allows the Kurdish-led force to evacuate its fighters and civilians from Ras al-Ayn, a border town under siege by Turkish-backed forces. He said that Kurdish-led force was preparing plans to conduct that evacuation on Sunday, if there are no delays.