Turkey to return occupied areas of Syria to “rightful owners” - Erdoğan

Turkey aims to return areas of Syria that it has invaded to their rightful owners, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday as he addressed a crowd gathered outside a Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress in the Turkish province of Bolu.

“What are we doing there?” asked Erdoğan in reference to Turkey’s presence in Syria’s north-western regions of Afrin, invaded in January this year and a neighbouring area which Turkey has occupied since 2016. “Are we occupiers? No. We’re trying to return those places to their real owners. They have begun to return to these lands. We are the representatives of a compassionate religion. We will continue this march in a decisive and determined way. We will make no concessions here.”

His comments come as Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees and has faced pressure to curtail its ongoing offensive in Afrin following last month’s United Nations resolution calling for a 30 day ceasefire in Syria. Turkey says the ceasefire does not apply to its Afrin operation.

Erdoğan also called for unity against what he called “attacks on our religion”.

He said, “Talking about religion may not suit me. But as a Muslim I have a right to speak about those who seek to weaken my religion.” He also called on Turkish theologians to voice the same criticisms.

“We must act together against those attacking our religion,” he said, “Didn’t FETÖ (the Gülen movement) attack our religion? He was speaking from a podium in the name of God. They are enemies of religion.” He added, “We are 81 million people whose heart beats as one. We will always stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Following his address to the crowd, Erdoğan delivered another speech inside the congress hall.

In response to calls from the members of audience to be sent to fight in Afrin, he discussed the prospect of mobilization, “Every day I ask the Chief of staff, “Is it necessary?” said Erdoğan. “He answers, “If it is I’ll let you know.” If there comes a time of any difficulties, we will give the mobilization order.”  

Erdoğan also said that Turkey was the strongest member of NATO, lauding his countries achievement is missions to Somalia, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and complained that NATO had not reciprocated by providing Turkey with sufficient support in as it has came under attack from “terror organizations" in Syria.