Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed on Wednesday that Turkey wants its military operation against Syrian Kurds to end as soon as possible, preferably before May, so that the Afrin region can “quickly embrace stability and civilians can return.”
The offensive has been in progress since January 20 and has so far killed almost 200 people, 42 of them Turkish soldiers. The Turkish government claims it has “neutralized” over 3,000 “terrorists” during the so-called Operation Olive Branch, a count that would include both Kurdish militia and ISIS or al-Qaeda fighters.
Turkish media reported on Thursday that Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebel militia seized the town of Jinderes, one of the largest settlements in the Afrin region. If this report holds up, Turkey will have seized control of five of the seven urban centers in Afrin.
Syrian Arab militia forces allied with the Kurds announced this week that they will redeploy some 1,700 fighters to the region to fight the Turkish invasion, prompting U.S. complaints that Turkey’s action is diverting forces from the battle against what remains of the Islamic State.
Turkish leaders have begun portraying the Afrin operation as key to solving Turkey’s long-standing problem with Syrian refugees.
“We are not in a position to continue hosting 3.5 million refugees forever. We’ll solve the Afrin incident, we’ll solve Idlib, and we would like our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their own country,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.
Voice of America News notes this is a significant change from past Turkish rhetoric, which has presented refugee aid as evidence of humanitarianism superior to a Europe that has grown more wary about mass migration. Erdogan used to talk about offering permanent citizenship to “our Syrian friends,” but seems to have changed his tune because his own public is beginning to complain about mass migration from Syria.
VOA cites the immense cost of housing, health, and education benefits for refugees and growing friction between native Turks and migrant Syrians to explain why the refugee crisis has become a major Turkish voter concern, which Erdogan might see an opportunity to address by returning refugees to Afrin. This would have the added benefit to Erdogan of thinning out the Kurdish population in the region. The Kurdish-friendly opposition HDP party in Turkey has accused Erdogan of planning something very close to ethnic cleansing by shipping Syrian Arab refugees en masse into the Afrin territory conquered by Turkey.
“Whatever territory Turkey occupies, it is going to be used to send back the Syrian refugees, largely Sunni Arabs. There is going to be ethnic dilution; it’s a lose/lose for Kurds. It’s a very neat solution; as with all neat solutions, it’s clever, but not ethical or moral,” analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners told VOA News.