Turkey starts construction of refugee settlements in Syria, Erdoğan says

(Releads, updates with Erdoğan comments para 2-4)

Turkey has begun works to resettle Syrian refugees in the region between two Syrian border towns of Ras al Ayn and Tal Abyad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday.

"We have started to work on settlement construction between Syria's Ras al Ayn and Tal Abyad, where we can settle hundreds of thousands of people, while other places along Turkey-Syria border can house a million people," Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan announced his plans to resettle up to 1 million Syrian refugees in the safe zone established by Turkey along its border in Syria in December 2019.

Ankara launched a military operation on Oct. 9 to clear Kurdish-led forces it views as terrorists from areas south of its border, capturing an area between two border towns of Ras al Ayn and Tel Abyad where Erdoğan wishes to create a safe zone to resettle Syrian refugees, over 3.6 million of whom are currently residing in Turkey.

The Turkish President also said Turkey was at the doorstep of a period of ascendancy in 2020 and would pursue a foreign policy that prioritises protecting Turkey’s rights, particularly in the Mediterranean.

“Through strengthening production, export and employment rates and protecting our rights on the international front, especially in the Mediterranean region, we are opening the door to a new rising period,” state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdoğan as saying at a meeting in Ankara.

Turkey made an effort to strengthen its hand in the east Mediterranean in 2019 by sending two drilling ships near Cyprus to explore the potentially rich hydrocarbon reserves off the island.

Turkey’s policy escalated tensions with Greece and Cyprus, which have struck deals with Egypt and Israel to carry Mediterranean gas to Europe through a pipeline.

Ankara in response signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime borders with the U.N.-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli to bolster its position in the hydrocarbon competition. The deal makes Turkey and Libya maritime neighbours, ignoring the territorial waters of some Greek islands.

“It is no more legally possible to conduct survey and drilling activities or establish pipelines in the region between Turkey and Libya’s continental shelfs without the consent of both countries,” Erdoğan said. 

Turkey will start issuing licences for its expanded territorial waters in the east Mediterranean in 2020 and its drilling ship Oruç Reis will begin exploring oil and gas, Sabah newspaper quoted the president as saying.

Turkey signed another deal with the Tripoli government, agreeing to deploy military forces to support the Government of National Accord against the forces led by General Khalifa Haftar who controls most of the east and south of Libya. 

“We are sending our troops to this country to help the legitimate Libyan government to stay in power and to ensure stability,” Erdoğan said.