image Photo: Reuters

Turkey demands “complete support” from NATO over Syria

The United States in now discussing with its NATO allies what they can offer Turkey in terms of military assistance in Idlib, as well as what actions may be taken if Russia and Syrian President Bashar al Assad violated the current shaky ceasefire, officials said today.

Reuters reported that U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told reporters in a conference call from Brussels where he was holding talks with his colleagues that “We are looking at what NATO can do,” adding “Everything is on table.”

Jeffrey, who made the statements alongside U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield, went on however, to reject the deployment of ground troops in the event of a broken truce,   and repeated that Ankara needed to clarify its stance on purchase of the Russian S400 Air Defense System.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reiterated today that he would not stop migrants trying to cross Turkey’s border into Greece despite EU pressure to do so, but he also announced a summit next week in Istanbul with European leaders to seek a solution to the crisis.

The talks were held amid a tense days-long dispute between the tens of thousands of migrants who have been trying to get into Greece, a European Union member state, since Turkey declared on 28 February that it would no longer restrain them on its territory. Erdogan’s declaration that the EU was open to migrants is in violation of Turkey’s 2016 deal with Brussels in return for EU aid for the refugees

Yesterday Erdogan traveled to Brussels for meetings with senior NATO and European Union officials in his drive to garner increased support for the burgeoning refugee crisis. Turkey, which hosts around 3.6 million mostly-Syrian refugees, has repeatedly railed against what it describes as unfair burden-sharing. ‘Turkey is a member state of the NATO,’ and ‘Turkey’s borders are NATO’s borders,’ said Erdogan at a press conference held after his talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as he also called on the intergovernmental military alliance between 29 North American and European countries to provide more specific support to Turkey in terms of defense and anti-terrorism.

Stoltenberg, however, responded by saying that Turkey should take up its own responsibilities to solve the refugee issue. “We’ve recognized that Turkey is carrying a heavy burden, but Turkey must play its part in finding a longer-term solution to this crisis,” Stoltenberg said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced today that Ankara and Brussels are working on a “road map” which covers “updating the March 6 pact,” adding Turkey hopes for a result ahead of an EU leaders’ summit on March 26. This, after top Turkish officials informed their European counterparts at a meeting in the Belgian capital yesterday that they wanted to open a “new phase” with the EU while updating its 2016 migration deal with the bloc.

Erdogan also held talks with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Michel admitted that the European Union and Turkey have not yet reached a consensus on the implementation of the migration deal the two sides signed four years ago, and that EU High Representative Josep Borrell and the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs will work on the issue in the next few days. The EU Council President also said “We also had the opportunity to discuss questions of security in the region, particularly in Syria, and to clearly demonstrate our mobilization in support of all political solutions to bring back stability, but most of all to be clear about our great concern for the humanitarian landscape – in Idlib, but also at the border between Turkey and Syria.”

Nearly a million people in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib fled toward the Turkish border during the recent battles in Idlib between Syrian government forces and rebels.

For her part, von der Leyen said that the EU remains committed to its refugee pact with Turkey and the agreement remains valid.

Turkey had curtailed migration to Europe under the deal in return for billions of euros in aid. The 2016 pact had envisaged the EU taking in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from camps in Turkey, rewarding Turks with visa-free travel to the bloc, faster progress in EU membership talks and upgrading their customs union.

But ties between the two soured following a botched attempt to oust Erdogan from power in July 2016. The EU was taken aback by the scale of Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown on critics and has effectively frozen Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the bloc.

“A lot goes back to the EU-Turkey statement of 2016 which remains valid, and we discussed today how to implement the missing pieces: to map it again, to analyze it, to have a common understanding of what is missing and what is already in place,” EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen said after about 40 minutes of talks.

Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu revealed that his nation’s military will patrol to the north of a security corridor being set up around a highway in northwest Idlib province and Russian forces will patrol the southern side. Agreement on the corridor was part of a ceasefire deal reached by Turkey and Russia last week to halt a conflict in Idlib which displaced nearly a million people in three months and created the risk of a military clash between Turkey and Russia.

The two countries support opposing sides in the Arab Republic’s nine-year war – with Moscow and Iran allied with Assad, and Ankara backing some rebel groups. Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed.

The latest pact cemented gains by Russian-backed forces over Turkish-backed rebels, but slowed advances by Assad’s forces and eased Ankara’s greatest fear of another influx of Syrian refugees.

During an interview with state-owned Anadolu news agency, Cavusoglu also said that a Russian military delegation had arrived in Ankara today for talks on further details of the truce. In accordance with its terms, delineation of the corridor, which stretches some 6 km north and south of the east-west M4 highway, must be hammered out within seven days. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols were to begin along the highway itself on March 15, but it remains unclear what would happen to a remaining rebel hold that will be created the south of the highway.

According to Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, Moscow vowed to ensure that Damascus’ forces do not try to enter the corridor along the M4 and that Turkey-back rebels would remain in place. He also said that Russia issued a stern warning after Syrian government troops committed a small violation of the ceasefire forces on Monday.