Turkish President Eyes Syrian Refugee Return to Quell Public Discontent, Economic Malaise
By Dorian Jones October 29, 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing for the mass return of Syrian refugees to ease domestic discontent and kickstart an ailing economy. But Erdogan is struggling to find the financial support to realize his objective.
Turkey's military operation against the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia this month was ostensibly an operation to secure the Turkish border from what Ankara called a terrorist threat. But analysts suggest the return of refugees was the main objective.
"This political risk [Syrian military operation] Tayyip Erdogan took, this decision was mostly for domestic purposes," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "Why? Because the recent [Turkish] local elections show the Syrian refugees are already a social, psychological, political, [and] economic problem for Turkey.
In March, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party lost control of many of Turkey's largest cities. The unprecedented defeats were widely blamed on mounting discontent over the presence of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, coupled with a sluggish economy.
Ankara aims to address both challenges by returning over a million refugees and housing them in new towns and villages.
"He [Erdogan] is a very pragmatic man, he thinks by building new housing he will save the collapsing building sector," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
The Turkish construction industry is mired in debt and hobbled by weak demand. The sector is one of Erdogan's most important financial backers.
"As it will be a Turkish company and Turkish workers engaged in this activity, there will be an impact on the Turkish economy," said an international banking analyst who spoke anonymously.
"The bigger challenge is to finance that," he added. "It will be quite a burden for the Turkish banks to finance that activity, and from other sources, funding from the rest of the world it will be hard. It's not clear if the fighting is over, so if it's a conflict zone, it will be difficult for the rest of the world to fund any construction activity there."
Ankara has put a price tag of more than $20 billion on the Syrian refugee resettlement project. Analysts warn, given Turkey's strained relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Ankara can't rely on Arab oil money to help fund the project. As a result, Europe appears to be Erdogan's main target for financial support.
Erdogan confirmed that he plans to meet with French, German, and British leaders in coming weeks to discuss Syria. A December NATO summit in London is seen as the most likely venue.
"What he wants is cash to fund his ambitious $29 billion resettlement program," said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, "which I don't think the EU [European Union] has a mechanism to deliver, so what they will do I don't know."
Speaking recently with Turkish state international broadcaster TRT, Erdogan said that refugees from Europe could be returned to Syria as part of Turkey's resettlement program.
"It's a perfect pipe dream," said Aktar. "Things in the real world don't function like this. No one asked those refugees if they want to return. The return and repatriation of refugees is a very tightly coded operation; it should be voluntary, it's called voluntary repatriation."
Relations between Ankara and the EU are already strained with widespread condemnation of Turkey's Syrian military operation.
Last week, EU Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger suggested cutting financial support to Turkey for refugees. "The next tranche, the EU shouldn't make such high payments to Turkey as it has until now," Oettinger said in an interview with Welt Sonntag newspaper.
But Erdogan retains powerful leverage: the threat of opening Turkey's borders to Europe. In 2015 around a million refugees and migrants inundated Greece from neighboring Turkey. A refugee deal between Ankara and the EU dramatically reduced the flow.
Erdogan is threatening a new exodus if the EU does not cooperate.
"In the past, Europe panicked, especially Germany," said Yesilada. "When confronted with this threat of Turkey opening its doors on refugees and they tried to appease Turkey, so at the end they may resort to the same option."
Saturday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Ankara for talks on Syria. But analysts saw little evidence that Maas was open to financing Turkish resettlement plans. Maas clashed with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu over calls to end Ankara's fight against the Syrian Kurdish militia and a withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria.
"Blackmailing of the Europeans will not work," said Aktar. "There is no chance they will pay up. But what they will be telling him, probably at the NATO summit, it is to concentrate on [fighting] ISIS [Islamic State] and stop fighting the Kurds."
Analysts warn any resettlement plan will require Ankara to reopen diplomatic relations with Damascus, which were cut at the onset of Syria's civil war. With no European country offering financial support to date, Ankara is facing a hard sell to realize its Syrian return plan.
"I don't think the return of Syrians will happen soon," said Bagci. "There are security questions, money questions, and of course, the other issues with the Bashar al Assad regime. The regime has to accept they will be deployed in the region that Turkey foresees."
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