The Atma IDP camp, located in Idlib Governorate of Syria and housing internally displaced Syrians, is pictured from a Turkish border village in Hatay province, Turkey. Picture: Murad Sezer/Reuters
The Atma IDP camp, located in Idlib Governorate of Syria and housing internally displaced Syrians, is pictured from a Turkish border village in Hatay province, Turkey. Picture: Murad Sezer/Reuters

This is the real purpose of Turkey’s military presence in Syria

By Elif Çomoglu Ülgen Time of article published Mar 9, 2020

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Having read the article titled “Turkey’s hypocrisy about Syria should be challenged” by Reneva Fourie, published on IOL on 2 March 2020, as the Turkish Ambassador in South Africa, I am compelled to set the record straight about Turkey’s military presence in Syria.

It is disappointing to see that Comrade Fourie has been caught up in the illusion of the self-righteous portrait of a conflict-ridden country, painted by the regime to feed to its increasingly shrinking group of supporters and to propagate its sympathisers. I presume it is rather convenient to criticise anyone but the real culprit of why Syria is in severe distress, from the comfort zone in Damascus.

However, it is my duty to urge all those that are misguided to recognise the regime for what it really is, whose internationally discredited and disgraced leader continues to torment his own people in his pursuit of clinging on to power for the past 10 years.

Perhaps as the ambassador of a country that happens to be an immediate neighbour of the Idlib province, shares a 911km land border with Syria and has been directly exposed to all repercussions of the regime’s atrocities, my words would seem biased. In that case, I would like to refer to the UN reports, one of which by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore delivered in the UN Security Council on 27 February states that 6.7 million refugees have fled Syria since the war began, and 6.2 million and counting are internally displaced. 

After almost a decade of war, nearly half of the country’s population had to abandon their homes and currently 11 million people across Syria, almost half of whom are children, require urgent humanitarian assistance.

As the conflict enters its almost 10th year, Turkey has practically assumed the burden of a total of almost 9 million Syrians on its own soil as well as in the north of Syria, as the exodus of refugees shows no sign of levelling. As opposed to many countries that merely vocalize their concern, Turkey has been bearing the brunt of the regime’s bad decisions.

Indeed, we all agree that the people of Syria deserve peace and prosperity. When admiring the resilience of the Syrian people, either deliberately or by ignorance, the author surely fails to mention the innocent civilians who have been targeted indiscriminately by the regime. Certainly she must not be referring to resilience against the chemical weapons attacks of the regime, another fact failed to be included in the article. 

Ironically, one asks what hypocrisy? The article makes the claim that Turkey is an “invader on Syrian soil” and there is myriad unfounded accusations for which Ms Fourie fails to provide any proof. This is why the purpose of Turkey’s current military presence in Syria must be clarified in the eyes of the South African public.

In a nutshell, Turkey is in Syria due to its national security concerns and humanitarian considerations. Allow me to elaborate. Due to the regime’s military campaign in Idlib since May 2019, more than 2000 civilians have been killed. The attacks displaced more than two million people towards our border, mostly women and children, since early-December 2019. As the UN announced, this is the worst man-made displacement in the world in the last decade.

The overwhelming majority of the international community is convinced that the regime is indiscriminately targeting an entire population, perpetrating gross violations amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, the regime forces and its backers increased the frequency of their attacks by directly targeting the Turkish military servicemen in Idlib. On 27 February, a Turkish military convoy was deliberately targeted. Contrary to the allegations, it was not escorted by any armed group. We lost 36 soldiers as a result of a series of airstrikes. And a significant number of Turkish Forces were wounded. Even our ambulances dispatched to rescue the wounded soldiers were hit, in violation of international humanitarian law. 

Against the alarming situation on the ground with continued attacks deliberately targeting the Turkish military, Turkey was compelled to take unilateral action within the boundaries of international law in self-defence and launched “Operation Spring Shield” on 27 February 2020.

The operation aims to protect civilians by ending the regime’s aggression on the civilian population, ensure the security of the Turkish military servicemen, preserve the de-escalation area status of Idlib, contribute to the establishment of a nationwide ceasefire as called for by UNSCR 2254, ensure rapid and uninterrupted humanitarian access, and prevent mass displacement movements into Turkey.

As ever, Turkey is committed to the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria. Turkey will do its utmost to contribute to restoring Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity once the Syrian-led and Syrian-owned, UN-facilitated political process establishes a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance. 

Today, Turkish presence in Idlib is hope for the millions of civilians who are stuck in this area, as it is the only reason why millions of Syrians can still remain in their homeland.

Turkish presence in Idlib is also the sole guarantee for the continuation of the humanitarian assistance. And it is time that the international community starts to share the burden.

What is really happening in Syria is not what the article of Ms. Fourie alleges, which was unfortunately a misinformed account, tainted by the twisted convictions of the Syrian regime.

There is no need for a messenger of distorted news, since South Africa, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, is well aware and informed of the humanitarian tragedy in Syria. For the facts and not the fabrications about Syria to prevail, as the Turkish Embassy in Pretoria, we are at the service of the South African public to explain our true motives.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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