Turkey hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees which is one of the reasons why the opposition urges the government for a new Syria policy. (Photo: Turkey’s relief agency AFAD web site.)

Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) urges President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for an alternative Syria policy through an international conference in Istanbul on September 28. Asking Erdoğan to abandon his policy of no-contact with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu says the conference has been planned as a “humble contribution” to the peace efforts in the framework of Geneva and Astana processes.
Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu have different stances about the Syrian civil war since it has started in 2011. For example Kılıçdaroğlu has been criticizing Erdoğan for taking parts and providing arms to some jihadist factions in the civil war and letting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) threat grow, since they are now collaborating with the U.S. army in Syria. He also criticizes the President’s refugee policy; for mishandling the problem. According to President Erdoğan there are currently 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and some 350 thousand of them have already returned to their homes in neighbouring enclaves in Syria under the control of the Turkish army as a result of Russian cooperation. The handling of refugees is important in Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU) because the EU countries do not want to receive even fractions of that number.

Syria discrepancies between AKP and CHP

CHP has also reservations on the government’s negotiations with the U.S. over the formation of a “Safe Zone” in Syria territory against the PKK attacks. Ünal Çeviköz, a retired Turkish diplomat and currently a Deputy Chairman for the CHP told Şirin Payzın on T24 broadcast on September 27 that those talks without the consent of Damascus could be a recipe to “divide” Syria, thus against Turkish interests.
Erdoğan on the other hand has been following an “Assad must go first” policy up until recently; being the main justification for supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) “armed opposition”. But in the last round of Astana Process talks between Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara on September 16, Erdoğan signalled that, his policy so far was coming to an end. Putin thanked Erdoğan for agreeing on the last remaining name completing a committee to write the constitution draft of the “New Syria”, which might mean that Turkey would gradually decrease its support to “armed opposition” and focus more on Geneva. That also means Turkey could settle with Assad’s position up until free elections in Syria, if that ever happens.
The CHP conference could be considered as a domestic support to the international efforts for Syria, urging Erdoğan to take a rather moderate stance and do not rule out contacts with Damascus.

Polarization takes over foreign policy issues, too

But the government does not seem very happy because of this conference. There are press reports that some hidden obstructions are taking part to block the CHP from having high profile foreign participation, particularly from Syria. Muharrem Sarıkaya, a seasoned political journalist wrote in his column in Habertürk on September 27 that, following press reports about EU’s Ankara representative Christian Berger’s participation in the Conference, it was told to CHP that his program was changed and he had to travel out of Turkey. EU will be represented by a lower rank diplomat. Sarıkaya also wrote that the government refused to issue a visa to Khalaf al-Maftah, an adviser to Assad who had otherwise agreed to attend the Istanbul conference. (Yet, in both cases change of Conference day from the original September 17 to 25 might also be a factor.) (*) Wael al-Malasi, a leader for Christian communities of Syria is expected to be at the Conference, as well as representatives of Turkoman communities in Syria.
Some other opposition parties are also sending representatives to the CHP-led conference. Those include the centre-left CHP’s election ally, the centre-right Good Party (GP), the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the religious-conservative Felicity Party (SP), whereas AKP and Erdoğan’s election ally Devlet Bahçeli’s nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are not expected to take part in it. That shows that polarization in Turkish politics have started to take over foreign policy issues as Syria issue in particular has worn up Turkish public opinion in the last eight years.

(*) Updated on September 28 at 08.16.

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