Official: EU will not fund Turkish plan to settle refugees in Afrin

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers celebrate after capturing the city of Afrin from Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) forces, northern Syria, 18 March 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 18 March said the Turkish military and allied Syrian militias of the Free Syrian Army had taken complete control of the city of Afrin, the capital of the Kurdish enclave of the same name in northwest Syria. [Aref Tammawi/EPA/EFE]

Following indications that Turkey would like to bring Syrian refugees to the area of Afrin, which it has controlled since the ‘Olive Branch’ incursion into northern Syria earlier this year, the EU made clear on Friday (20 April) that it would not be part of the game.

Various sources have indicated in recent days that Turkey plans to bring Syrian refugees from its territory to Afrin and drive out Kurds from the area.

The Turkish military launched an air and ground operation named ‘Olive Branch’ on Syrian territory close to its borders in January, officially aimed against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

YPG has been Washington’s main ally against Islamic State in Syria, a partnership that has infuriated Turkey, which views them as terrorists linked to the outlawed Kurdish PKK militants.

Western experts say Ankara’s motive for the operation is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish statelet deeply hostile to Turkey on its southern border. Turkey has a sizeable Kurdish population and is doing everything it can to prevent separatism.

In an exclusive interview, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, Faruk Kaymakcı, told EURACTIV that with the ‘Olive Branch’ operation his country wants “to make these areas stable and secure so that Afrin people, who are already in Turkey [350,000], can go back to their homes”.

Ambassador: Turkey, EU should cooperate in safely returning Syrian refugees home

At the Varna summit, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told his interlocutors that the EU should cooperate in Syria in terms of helping Syrian refugees to go back to their homes, Turkish ambassador to the EU Faruk Kaymakcı told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Asked if the issue had been discussed at the recent ‘leaders meeting’ in Varna between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and top EU officials, the diplomat said President Erdoğan had explained the aims of Operation Olive Branch and told the EU that they should co-operate with Turkey in Syria in terms of helping Syrians go back to their homes.

The diplomat added that this would happen when the conditions are appropriate and when they wish to go back.

Asked if Turkey counted on the EU’s continued financial support, including the second €3 billion tranche under the EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016, to transfer these Syrians back to their homes, he said:

“First, the EU should approve the second €3 billion. Out of the first €3 billion, despite being entirely contracted, only €1.9 billion has been spent. EU and Turkey are discussing how the second €3 billion tranche could be spent in the most efficient way for Syrians.”

EURACTIV asked officials in Brussels if it would be possible for the Union to fund moving people and implanting refugees in the Afrin area, a move that resembles ethnic cleansing.

A senior EU official who is part of the team preparing the “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” conference in Brussels to be held next Tuesday and Wednesday, said:

“The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. To answer very briefly your question, the view that we have now, under the current security circumstances, is that we cannot fund such a project”.

Another EU official familiar with the talks in Varna told EURACTIV that Erdoğan had mentioned in Varna that ‘Olive Branch’ was an anti-terrorist operation and that his intention was to build up housing, hospitals etc. in Afrin “to enable people to return to a safe location”.

Turkey had pressed the Bulgarian EU Presidency to obtain the Varna summit, which was held on 26 March and ended with the idea that it could become a permanent venue for future talks.

Varna to become permanent venue for EU-Turkey talks

The Varna summit held on Monday (26 March) between EU institution leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed to yield any notable outcomes. But Bulgaria’s PM said the port city could become a permanent venue for future talks.

The official added that in the past, Erdoğan had discussed with EU counterparts “some plans to create safe zones in Northern Syria and build up little villages there, for which he wanted EU money as well”. Nothing came from that, he said.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, explained that the EU money to be disbursed for Turkey under the 2016 agreement was for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

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