Turkey’s Erdoğan says Syria safe zone would allow many refugees to return

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said a proposed safe zone in northern Syria would enable many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to their homeland, 

Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan said some 300,000 Syrians had already returned in the past year.

His statement seemed in part a campaign move in the lead-up to Turkey’s local elections on March 31, according to Atilla Yeşilada of Global Source Partners. “There is a huge amount of discontent in Turkey about Syrians,” VOA quoted Yeşilada as saying. The average, poor supporter of Erdoğan 's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), he said, saw Syrian refugees as competitors for limited public resources. “It's a huge problem for Erdoğan," he said.

Turkey’s economic troubles have exacerbated discontent over refugees. Many economists predict Turkey will go into recession this year, while recent opinion polls show the AKP’s commanding lead over its rivals eroding fast. 

Earlier this month, Erdoğan unveiled plans for major housing projects for returning Syrians in the proposed safe zone. “My plan would be to build two-story houses with gardens of 500-square metres so the inhabitants could begin a new life," Erdoğan said.

Turkey’s economic growth in the past decade has largely been driven by construction and mega-projects, yet construction has been among the hardest hit by the economic slowdown.

"The private construction industry is coming to a complete standstill," Yeşilada said. "It accounts for 10 percent of the GDP. In terms of employment, it's hugely important, as it's a labour-intensive industry. The entire construction industry is one of the pillars of economic growth."

International relations professor Hüseyin Bağcı of Ankara's Middle East Technical University said projects in Syria could boost Turkey's beleaguered construction industry.

"There is no doubt Syria has to be rebuilt, and the Turkish contribution is going to be immense," Bağcı said. "We have been doing this in the good old times of 2008, 9, and 10. Turkey was building [in Syria] hotels, streets, train stations, many things. Why not start again? Reconciliation with Syria in economic terms would be perfect for Turkey."

The problem is that any major reconstruction projects would require Turkey to renew diplomatic relations with Damascus. Erdoğan steadfastly refuses to normalise ties until Syrian President Bashar Assad relinquishes power, which appears highly unlikely now that his side has all but won the war. 

Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydın Selcen believes Ankara would like the EU to fund the construction project. "The EU seems to be quite willing to play that role because they fear a new influx of refugees emanating from Syria. And Erdoğan saw that clearly when dealing with the EU," he said. 

Yet Europe would likely baulk at providing significant financial support for Turkish projects in the safe zone without validation from the United Nations.

What is more, Syrian projects may not help Turkey's huge construction sector very much. “Turkey is a country where 600,000 new units are sold annually. In Syria, you are going to get a tenth of that a year. So, it's going to help, but it's not a lifesaver,” said Yeşilada.

Finally, the number of Syrians who are ready to return is limited. 

"There are not significant numbers of Syrians returning," said Selcen. "The Syrians that are 3 million or so in Turkey. They are here to stay for the foreseeable future. And if you were in their shoes, would you want to leave a place like Istanbul for a destroyed country like Syria?"