The key to ending the refugee crisis is to end the Syrian civil war, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Wednesday, underlining the importance of continuing the political process to come up with a solution to the eight-year-long conflict.
“The solution to the refugee crisis, which originated from Syria, depends on ending the Syrian Civil War. That’s why we (as Turkey), while hosting refugees, are also doing our best to find a political solution,” Erdoğan said, responding to journalists’ questions in Geneva, where he attended the UNHCR’s Global Refugee Forum before heading to Malaysia.
Recalling the Astana and Geneva processes and Turkey’s efforts in both political forums, the president said that Turkey's main priority is to end terrorism by preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and by doing so, enable Syrians to return to their homes “voluntarily, safely and in an honorable way.”
“For this purpose, the formation of a safe zone is crucial,” he emphasized. “Regarding our call for the establishment of the safe zone (to the international community), even the strongest, most credible economies in the world did not say ‘we are in’ yet. We are waiting for a response but there is nothing,” Erdoğan expressed, underlining his wish to form a safe zone 120 kilometers long and 32 kilometers deep in northern Syria.
According to the safe zone plan, 140 villages and 10 district centers will be established within the 30- to 40-kilometer deep safe zone in northern Syria, housing 5,000 and 30,000 inhabitants, respectively. The settlements will be provided with various facilities so the people living there will be able to have a normal life with every necessity met.
By establishing a safe zone in northern Syria, Turkey hopes to resettle displaced Syrians currently living in the country and get rid of the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, YPG terrorists, in the region.
The president also highlighted that preserving security in the region will be an integral part of the formation of a safe zone.
Turkey has long been fighting to eradicate the presence of terrorist groups in northern Syria, conducting three cross-border operations there – Operation Olive Branch, Euphrates Shield and most recently Peace Spring. Following the liberation of areas in northern Syria, efforts to clear bombs and improvised explosive devices were launched, and administration duties were given to local councils. So far, thanks to these operations, 371.000 Syrians have returned to their hometowns.
“In this respect, we had talks with both the Americans and Mr. (Vladimir) Putin on Tuesday. All of them said ‘Let’s continue our work in solidarity.’ If we manage to do this, it will make history by posing an example (for future similar incidents),” he said.
“They will say, ‘Turkey has built such a refugee city or cities.’ This is very important for us. Our project is pretty good,” Erdoğan said, adding that Turkey still keeps the door open to anyone who would like to contribute to the process.
Pointing to Turkey’s status as the No. 1 country in the world when it comes to the number of refugees being hosted, Erdoğan said that the “open-door policy” is being implemented as a “humanitarian and moral” responsibility.
Data shows that as of 2019, there are a total of 28.7 million refugees in the world. The largest refugee community is currently in Turkey, with 3.8 million refugees. Turkey is followed by Jordan with 2.9 million refugees and Lebanon with 1.6 million refugees.
According to U.N. data, the number of migrants in Turkey, which has been seeing major refugee flows since the early 2010s, makes up 7% of the country's total population. Following an open-door policy since the start of the civil war in the neighboring country of Syria, where most of the refugees come from, Turkey has spent nearly $40 billion on the refugee community specifically, while it has only received about 6 billion euros ($6.69 billion) of support from the international community.
“The developed and rich Western countries failed in the refugee crisis. Some rich Arab countries are in the same condition as well. However, the global problems can only be solved through global cooperation and solidarity,” the president emphasized, indicating that avoiding the refugee problem does not make the problem disappear
Turkey’s acts in Mediterranean lawful
When it comes to Turkey’s recent steps in the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdoğan said that despite accusations of the deal with Libya being unlawful, everything regarding the agreement is in accordance with international law.
“We have done all the calculations and work regarding our step. This process (of having a deal with Libya) did not start recently. There is a history behind this incident,” Erdoğan expressed, referring to the Moammar Gadhafi era. The president said that at that time, there were some steps taken for such a deal but those eventually failed after Gadhafi's death.
Turkey and Libya signed two separate deals last month following a meeting between Erdoğan and the head of the Presidential Council of Libya's U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al Sarraj, in Istanbul. One of the deals was critically important as it enabled Turkey to secure its rights in the Mediterranean while preventing any fait accompli by other regional states.
“We have further efforts on the issue. We will share our efforts with the international community in time,” Erdoğan said, while adding that during his most recent meeting with Sarraj, they discussed what further steps can be taken.
According to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, while a country is able to stretch its territorial waters only 12 nautical miles out to sea, when it comes to the exclusive economic zone, where it has the rights to fishing, mining and drilling, the area can extend for an additional 200 miles. However, if the maritime distance between the two countries is less than 424 miles, a bilateral deal is needed to determine a mutually agreed dividing line of their respective exclusive economic zones.
Greece, on the other hand, claims that the islands also have their exclusive economic zones, and with this claim, it reduces Turkey's zone remarkably.
Highlighting that the cooperation process between Turkey and Libya will be accelerated, Erdoğan said that Ankara is ready to assist the country whenever needed.
“We are ready (to help) when it comes to the steps on military and security cooperation, or regarding maritime law,” he said.
The president also indicated that the recently signed military security deal will strengthen the already existing solidarity between the two countries.
The president reiterated Turkey’s determination to proceed with its plans in line with the Maritime Pact.
“It is out of the question to slow this down,” Erdoğan said, noting that there is an ongoing war in Libya, where the United Arab Emirates and the Egyptian administrations openly support Khalifa Haftar, who is not internationally recognized as a legitimate political leader.
He noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel requested that Turkey be included in the Berlin process, in a phone call they held on Monday. Erdoğan continued by saying that Merkel told him about Russia’s positive contributions to the resolution of the conflict in Libya. Meanwhile, he told Merkel that the inclusion of Algeria, Tunisia and Qatar in the process would be beneficial, an idea previously mentioned by Putin.
“Algeria just elected its new president, while Tunisia elected its prime minister and Qatar has a leader,” Erdoğan said, noting that the Libyan people have trust in the three countries.
“Therefore, if these countries are in the process then the Libyan people can say we believe and trust these actors,” the president said, adding that they will decide upon the participants of the later meetings after the meeting in January.
Libya has remained dogged by turmoil since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising led to the ouster and death of former President Moammar Gadhafi after more than four decades in power.
Since then, Libya's stark political divisions have yielded two rival seats of power, one in Tobruk and another in Tripoli, and a host of heavily-armed militia groups. The military, pushed by Khalifa Haftar's army, allied with a parallel eastern administration based in Benghazi, marking a dangerous escalation of a power struggle that has dragged on since Gadhafi's overthrow. Haftar is not recognized by the international community, as the elected parliament of the country is centered in Tripoli.
As far as the rumors over possible cooperation with Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean are concerned, Erdoğan said that such a possibility never came to Turkey’s agenda and thus there is no point in mentioning it. He further emphasized that it is not possible to assume that a country like Turkey, which has the longest Mediterranean shoreline, would not be present in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The president also mentioned the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deployed to Northern Cyprus, saying that there is a high chance of increasing their numbers.
“Everything can change at any time, depending on the needs,” Erdoğan said.
Turkey has the longest shoreline in the Eastern Mediterranean, making it a natural candidate for seeking reserves in the region in accordance with international law. The presence of the Turkish Cypriot government in Northern Cyprus also strengthens Turkey's hands as the country defends the rights of the Turkish Cypriots in the region and insists that their consent is needed for any type of drilling activities.
Despite the fact that Turkey has the longest shoreline in the region, when it comes to the drilling activities, no country has felt the need to consult or engage in dialogue with Ankara on the issue. Still, until very recently, Ankara expressed willingness to establish dialogue channels with the various regional countries, and yet all its attempts fell flat with no response. Egypt even organized the East Mediterranean Gas Forum this year, inviting all the regional countries, except for Turkey.
Somalia recovers thanks to Turkey
The president said he discussed bilateral relations and the situation in Eastern Africa with Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre of Somalia. Referring to the humanitarian crisis in the country, Erdoğan said the situation has been improving significantly.
“Thankfully there is a stronger Somalia today, with Turkey having a strong presence in the economy, security and health services. Somalia is the greatest example of Turkey’s policy of embracing the oppressed,” the president said.
Turkey, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, launched a continental initiative to reach out to African countries whose relations with Turkey have been mostly limited since the early years of the Republic of Turkey.
Turkey's vast aid effort at the height of the 2011 famine endeared it to many Somali people, and it has continued to pour in aid, much of it from private companies.
It has built schools, hospitals and infrastructure and providing Somalis with scholarships to study in Turkey. President Erdoğan has visited Mogadishu twice since his visit to the war-ravaged country in 2011. He was the first non-African leader to visit the war-ravaged country in 20 years.
Rapidly growing trade between the two nations has followed. In 2010, Turkish exports to Somalia totaled just $5.1 million. In five years, this figure ballooned to $123 million. In the space of a few years, Turkey has gone from Somalia's 20th-largest source of imports to its fifth-largest.
The president also spoke with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and discussed bilateral ties and regional developments, while getting a chance to talk about the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting that will be held in Pakistan in February.
Diaspora Turks' ties with home country
Erdoğan said he also held meetings with the 6-million-strong Turkish community in Europe.
“We think it is important that they preserve close ties with Turkey while succeeding in the countries they reside in,” the president said, adding that the two expectations do not contradict each other.
Anti-Muslim hatred has significantly risen in Europe in the recent years. Far-right extremism and xenophobia have fueled anti-Muslim hatred in Western countries, where terror attacks by Daesh and al-Qaida are used as an excuse to legitimize those views. Although enmity toward Muslims is not a new phenomenon, it intensified after 2001 when two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Since then, for almost two decades, Islam has been unjustly tarnished with labels that have negative connotations and portrayed as a religion of hate and violence with anti-Western sentiment and women's oppression. This trend of intolerance has triggered deadly attacks against Muslims and immigrants since then.
With growing racism emerging as a serious problem in almost all EU states, citizens of foreign origin, including Turks, are more vulnerable in some countries. For example, in Germany, Muslims have become targets of countless attacks in recent years.
The president continued by noting that a Turkish delegation consisting of the deputy foreign and defense ministers and intelligence officials will soon visit Moscow to discuss regional developments with their Russian counterparts. He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported such a meeting and will soon commission a similar delegation to discuss issues including Libya and Syria.