Syrians in Turkey fear the worst as Erdogan changes mind on Assad

Syrian refugees have become the focus of political debate in Turkey ahead of next year’s elections. Calls to repatriate them to war-torn Syria used to come from fringe right-wing parties, but have now become mainstream as the country recovers from the economic crisis.

“There are no preconditions for dialogue [with Syria]”, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview last week. “More important is the purpose and purpose of this dialogue,” he told Turkish broadcaster Haber Global.

His comments marked a dramatic change in Ankara’s position over the past decade. Turkey was one of the main supporters of the Syrian opposition and armed groups that fought to overthrow the Assad regime there and intervened in the conflict militarily. The Turkish military maintains a presence on the border with Syria and in areas inside Syria that they control along with the Syrian opposition forces.

Cavusoglu made his comment just days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that “diplomacy can never be interrupted” with Damascus and that Ankara needs to “ensure further steps with Syria.” He added that Ankara’s goal was not to defeat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Just a decade ago, Erdogan called the Assad regime “terrorist” that would “pay the price” for the lives of Syrians who died in the war. He also promised to pray at the famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, suggesting that the regime would be overthrown.
Over the past year, Turkey has revised its foreign policy to mend and reconcile with neighbors including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Turkish officials also appear to be working to rebuild ties with Egypt, whose ruling regime toppled a democratically elected, Turkish-backed Islamist government.

This softening of Ankara’s stance also comes as several Arab states turn the page on the war in Syria and welcome Assad’s return to the region.

However, the conciliatory statements by Turkish officials are a prudent move aimed at domestic audiences ahead of next year’s elections, Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN.

“We’re going to the polls [Erdogan’s] the numbers look very uncertain and the refugee issue seems to be one of the top concerns for Turkish voters across the political spectrum, including his own base,” she said.

Anti-refugee sentiment has been growing in Turkey in recent months. The country is passing largest group of refugees in the world, and it faces a deepening economic crisis with inflation around 80% – the highest in nearly three decades. According to the UN, the country of 86 million is home to about 4 million registered refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrians.

“Refugees are scapegoats,” said Aydintasbas. “There is no economic or even real reason for this, but people, when [they’re] unemployed when [they see] their purchasing power is declining, they find refugees as a convenient scapegoat.”

Observers and human rights groups say Turkey is unlikely to send Syrians back to their country if it is not safe for them, due to international treaties protecting the rights of refugees. But they expect it to continue to be used as a tool to mobilize support from all parties ahead of next year’s vote.

“The whole idea of ​​starting a political dialogue is to convince voters that the government is doing something, [and] has plans to repatriate Syrians, although this is unlikely to happen,” Aydintasbas said.

Despite Turkish government assurances that there will be no forced return, many Syrians in Turkey fear they will be forced to return. Those in opposition-controlled areas of Syria fear that their territories will be returned to Syrian government forces.

“We are being executed one by one without any hesitation because we started this revolution,” Ammar Abu Hamzeh, a 38-year-old father of four from the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab, told CNN. “If the regime comes to the liberated areas, we will either die or we will have to flee with our families to Europe through Turkey.”

Both the ruling party and the opposition in Ankara have suggested that normalization of relations with the Assad regime is necessary to solve the refugee problem in Turkey.

When Turkey’s foreign minister first hinted at reconciliation earlier this month and revealed that he had a brief meeting with his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines of a conference last year, it sparked outrage in the last remaining part of rebel-held Syria.

A Syrian in Istanbul described fear in his community amid uncertainty. He spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity due to his precarious position in both countries.

“[Erdogan] wants to win the election, and we will pay for it,” he said. “If Erdogan wins, they probably won’t send us back without guarantees, but if the opposition wins, they will probably open the gates and send us all back. We will need to think about traveling to other countries.”

Gestures towards the Syrian regime are likely to be part of Erdogan’s campaign promise, Aydintasbas said. “It is unlikely that this will move forward, except for pleasantries between Turkey and Damascus.”

Isil Sariyuce CNN and Celine Al-Khaldi contributed to this article.

Digest

Influential Iraqi cleric Sadr says he is leaving politics

Iraq’s influential Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, said on Monday he was retiring from politics and closing his institutions in response to the political impasse. “I hereby announce my final retirement,” he said. tweeted. Hundreds of protesters inside Baghdad’s fortified green zone attempted to storm the Republican Palace, security officials told CNN on Monday.
  • Background: Regarded as the king of Iraqi politics, Sadr withdrew his legislators from parliament in June after failing to form a government of his choice. A political stalemate between him and Iran-backed Shiite rivals has left Iraq the longest without a government.
  • Why is it important: Sadr’s supporters have occupied parliament since late July and protested outside government buildings, halting the process of choosing a new president and prime minister. This announcement raised fears that they might intensify their protests, leading to a new phase of instability.

Iran reiterates closure of UN investigation over demand to restart nuclear deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said “there is no point in a nuclear deal” unless the International Atomic Energy Agency settles its investigation into unexplained traces of uranium at Iranian facilities.

  • Background: Iran has demanded an end to a UN nuclear watchdog investigation into traces of uranium found at undeclared research facilities before it agrees to fully implement a proposal to revive the 2015 nuclear pact that the Trump administration has abandoned.
  • Why is it important: The investigation is the only major stumbling block in the talks and risks prolonging an already drawn-out effort to reach an agreement. Iran has backed down on some demands, including removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, a senior US official told CNN earlier this month.

Turkish pop star to be placed under house arrest after detention sparks outrage

A Turkish court has ruled that pop star Gulsen must now be placed under house arrest, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday, after the singer’s official arrest four days ago over a joke about religious schools sparked outrage.

  • Background: Gulsen was jailed while awaiting trial on Thursday on charges of hate speech after a four-month-old video of her comments appeared on the website of the pro-government newspaper Sabah a day earlier. Several ministers condemned her comments on Twitter. She denied the allegations and apologized to those offended by her remarks.
  • Why is it important: Thousands of people have taken to social media in support of Gulsen, saying she has been targeted for her support for LGBT+ rights and liberal views that run counter to Erdogan’s Islamist AK party.

Tweet of the day

A live video of a Turkish sportscaster being slapped by a cat has gone viral in the country.

Hussein Ozkok was discussing football live on A Spor on Saturday when a cat appeared behind him and hit him in the face.

“It seems you have a little guest? Have you brought your cat?” the anchor laughed.

Ozcok replied that he was a guest at the cat’s house.

He later shared a photo of the cat. “Here is Oli, our little fiery friend who hit me with a right hook on live,” he tweeted. “When he was tiny and about to die, he was found in a trash can and brought back to life. Let’s take care of the animals. Let’s not call bad people animals.”

Photo of the day

Models showcase their latest collection at the Jimmy Fashion Show, where local and international fashion designers showcased their collections in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Friday.  Saudi designers have struggled in the past to travel abroad to showcase their work before easing restrictions in the kingdom.

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