Turkey bids to resettle two million Syrian refugees in border ‘safe zone’
Clashes have continued in some areas despite a five-day ceasefire being agreed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the border so up to two million refugees can be settled there, his spokesman said.
Government troops have moved in to several locations in north-eastern Syria this week, invited by Kurdish-led fighters to protect them from Turkey’s incursion.
That has complicated Turkey’s plan to create a “safe zone” along the border where it wants to clear out the Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists and resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey.
Under an agreement made by the US and Turkey, a ceasefire has been in place since Friday evening to last for five days, during which Kurdish fighters are supposed to pull back from border areas.
The ceasefire has been shaken by fighting in one border town, and there has so far been no sign of any withdrawals by the Kurdish-led forces.
Mr Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Ankara does not want Kurdish fighters to be able to continue to operate in border areas under control of Russian-backed Syrian forces.
He said Syrian forces should move out of border areas because the refugees “don’t want to go back to areas under regime control”.
He added: “This is one of the topics that we will discuss with the Russians, because, again, we are not going to force any refugees to go to anywhere they don’t want to go.
“We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe.”
Turkey has taken in about 3.6 million Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland but wants most of them to return.
US forces were previously deployed in parts of north-east Syria alongside Kurdish-led forces, but President Donald Trump withdrew them abruptly, opening the way for Turkey’s incursion 11 days ago.
Despite the ceasefire, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish-backed fighters entered Syria on Saturday and advanced into Kurdish-held Shakariya, a village east of Ras al-Ayn that saw clashes and a Turkish strike a day earlier.
Turkey and the Kurdish-led forces traded blame for the continued fighting, with the Kurds saying the continued siege was a violation of the agreement and asking US vice-president Mike Pence to ensure the deal’s enforcement.
But on Saturday evening, a medical convoy including the Syrian and Kurdish Red Crescent was allowed to pass through the Turkish-backed fighters’ cordon to Kurdish-held areas in the town for the first time — a sign of easing tensions.
The convoy delivered medical supplies and evacuated nearly 40 injured civilians and fighters. A Turkish Red Crescent convoy entered parts of the town held by Turkish-backed forces and delivered supplies there.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry said it is “completely abiding” by the accord and that it is in “instantaneous co-ordination” with Washington to ensure the continuity of calm.
The ministry accused Kurdish-led fighters of carrying out 14 “attacks and harassments” in the past 36 hours, most in the town of Ras al-Ayn, which was besieged by allied fighters before the ceasefire.
Turkey also said Saturday it has recaptured 41 suspected Islamic State members who had fled a detention camp amid the chaos caused by the fighting earlier this week.