Turkey insists on decisive role in Syrian peace talks

Uncertain future: These children at a school in Ankara are among the 2.5-million Syrian refugees in Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Uncertain future: These children at a school in Ankara are among the 2.5-million Syrian refugees in Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Turkey has the right to a decisive influence on Syrian peace talks due to start next week as the sheer number of refugees has made it the “second-largest Syrian country in the world”, its prime minister has said.

Ahmet Davutoglu, visiting London for talks with Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said it was also unimaginable that the estimated 2.5-million refugees in the country would return if the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, remained in power beyond a transition period.

“No country has more to say on these peace talks than Turkey because 2.5-million Syrians are in Turkey,” he said. “It is for us now a domestic issue if there is no well-established peace established in Syria. If Assad is sitting there in Damascus no Syrian will go back.”

All-party talks under United Nations auspices are due to start in Geneva next week, but there is increasing doubt about how substantive those talks will be and who will be permitted to take part.

Echoing the views of the official Syrian opposition, Davutoglu insisted that the Kurdish Democratic Unionist Party (PYD) cannot join the opposition delegation at the talks, claiming it was complicit with the Assad regime.

“The PYD has not been a real opposition – there has been close co-ordination between the PYD and the [Syrian] regime,” he said.

The Russians have been calling for the Kurds to be represented, but Turkey has been locked in a decades-long battle to resist demands for Kurdish autonomy. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. Turkey has been fighting the PKK in southeastern Turkey since a ceasefire between the group and Ankara ended last year.

Davutoglu added a further precondition to the talks, insisting there must be a lifting of “the medieval sieges” of Syrian towns, which were designed by the regime as “a war strategy to kill through hunger”.

Although warnings about the delegations and agenda for the Geneva talks may yet be overcome, the disputes underline the tough task of trying to align so many interests, factions and regional powers.

Davutoglu has been accused of not doing enough to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, as well as the number of foreign fighters reaching Syria.

But he said he found absurd the European complaint that he is presiding over a modern slave trade by turning a blind eye to human trafficking in refugees.

He pointed out that none of the €3-billion promised by the EU in October last year to cover the cost of keeping the Syrian refugees and discouraging them from travelling to Europe had yet been provided.

For his part, he said he had introduced work permits for any Syrian in Turkey for more than six months and restricted visas to any Syrian arriving in Turkey by air in an attempt to stop those transiting to Europe over the Aegean Sea. The EU, by contrast, had failed to unlock the funding agreed in October because of disputes over the cost. Davutoglu was due to see the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Friday to discuss the hold-up.

Davutoglu said the collapse of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement meant the region was riven by sectarianism and ethic rivalries.

“I feel pain. Syria has been the most moderate Arab and Middle Eastern society save after Lebanon – moderate in the sense there was no radical Shia or Sunni extremism,” he said. “Syrian society has been a pluralistic society – in all cities there were different ethnicities. Now we have Daesh [Islamic State], which is not fitting to the Syrian culture.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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