Expanded safe zone could welcome 3 million Syrians - Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday said 3 million Syrian refugees could be repatriated to the safe zone U.S. and Turkish forces are setting up in northeast Syria, tripling the previously proposed number. 

Speaking to reporters after talks in Ankara with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Erdoğan said the safe zone would have to be extended from Turkey’s border to Deir al Zor and Raqqa for this goal to be met, Reuters reported.  

“We want to work with both Russia and Iran as well as with other members of the international community for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees,” said Turkey’s president, according to a tweet by analyst Omar Kadkoy. 

Days after the U.S.-Turkey safe zone deal was announced last month, Turkish officials said they planned to relocate some 700,000 Syrians there. Early this month, Erdoğan expanded that vision. 

“Our aim is to settle at least one million of our Syrian brothers,” he said at an AKP gathering, adding that Turkey would build the housing. 

In response to the half million potential asylum seekers the Syrian government advance in Idlib province has pushed toward Turkey’s border, Erdoğan threatened to open the gates and allow Syrians to cross into Europe. 

“The president is hoping to whip up international financial support for a model that will see new settlements built for the Syrian refugees in territory taken over by Turkey,” Ahval columnist Zulfikar Dogan wrote last week, arguing that Erdoğan hopes to have Turkish construction firms and public housing agency TOKI oversee construction of the massive project. 

The Turkish government has consistently threatened to launch an offensive into northeast Syria against the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is key to the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) but which Ankara views as linked to an outlawed Kurdish armed group in Turkey. Last week, U.S. forces began joint patrols with Turkish troops near the border one day after a joint patrol with the YPG. 

On Monday, Erdoğan said that support for militant groups “under the pretence” of battling ISIS was unacceptable, adding that the real threat was the YPG, according to Reuters. 

Critics argue that Ankara is looking to use the safe zone plan to force out Kurds and repopulate the area with Sunni Arab Syrians. 

After Turkish forces seized the northwestern Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin in early 2018, Ankara oversaw the resettlement of displaced Arabs from elsewhere in Syria in homes vacated by more than 100,000 displaced Kurds, even giving them residence permits to stay.