The establishment of a committee to draw up a new constitution for Syria has entered its final phase, Turkey’s foreign minister said Thursday.
“Complementing the Geneva process, the Astana platform has delivered concrete results in reducing violence and accelerating the political process, and our joint effort has brought [us to] the final phase of the establishment of a constitutional committee,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Supporting the Future of Syria and Region conference in Brussels.
Cavusoglu said the ultimate goal of the international community should be to end the eight years of bloodshed and humanitarian tragedy in Syria.
Following the establishment of a balanced committee, free and fair elections as well as constitutional reforms under UN supervision can be possible, he added.
Cavusoglu also underscored the importance of the Astana peace process for building confidence by facilitating the mutual release of detainees held by the regime and opposition.
“The Idlib de-escalation area was a success in preventing another humanitarian tragedy and a new refugee flow to Turkey and Europe,” he said, adding that Turkey is determined to maintain calm in the northwestern Syrian city despite provocations.
Last September, a meeting between the Turkish and Russian leaders produced an agreement for a demilitarized zone in Idlib.
Under the deal, opposition groups in Idlib are to remain in areas where they are already present, while Russia and Turkey conduct joint patrols in the area to prevent renewed fighting.
US withdrawal decision
Cavusoglu said Washington’s decision to withdraw or downsize its forces in Syria brings new challenges.
“We have to make sure that a power vacuum is avoided and terrorist organizations such as Daesh, the PYD/YPG and the [Syrian] regime are not allowed to exploit this situation,” he said.
Turkey has vowed not to let the PYG/YPG — the Syrian branch of the terrorist PKK, responsible for over 40,000 deaths over the last 30 years — establish a terror corridor in Syria, along Turkey’s border.
The U.S. withdrawal process should respect Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity and Turkey’s security concerns, he said, adding that Turkey will continue to work with the U.S. and other actors in Syria.
“We will not of course stand idle if the terrorist groups attempt to attack us from the other side of the border with Syria, and we have proven our determination to combat terrorism originating from Syria though operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch,” he added, referring to two successful Turkish counter-terrorist operations since 2016.
Cavusoglu also expressed Turkey’s desire for a “stable, prosperous and democratic Syria that preserves its political unity and territorial integrity” and willingness to cooperate with members of the international community, European Union, and UN.
‘650,000 Syrians pursuing education in Turkey’
Cavusoglu said the Syrian crisis continues to drag on with “unbearable human suffering” and more than 5.6 million people have fled the country in search of safety in neighboring countries, mainly Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Many countries have turned their back on refugees, he said, adding Turkey opened its borders to 3.6 million refugees, as did Lebanon and Jordan.
Turkey hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world.
“I just want to share with you the figures on education, which we give primary importance to together with the EU and UN. Thanks to our efforts, around 650,000 of 1 million school-aged [Syrian] children are going to school. And in two years’ time, we doubled the school [attendance] rate from 30 percent to 62 percent,” he said.
Adding that Turkey will not be able to shoulder this responsibility alone, he said: “More than 300 Syrians are born in Turkey every day and more than 400,000 Syrians were born in Turkey in the last seven to eight years.”
“We appreciate the help of the international community, yet compared to the existing challenges, contributions are still small,” he added.
So far, almost 320,000 Syrians have returned to areas liberated from terrorism by Turkish operations, said Cavusoglu.
He also touched on the subject of promised aid from the EU to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.
“Facilities for refugees in Turkey have proven to be a good example of what can be achieved when Turkey and the EU cooperate,” he said, but added: “Only 2 billion out of the first €3 billion [in promised EU aid] reached Turkey. We have to find better and faster solutions.”
In March 2016, EU and Turkey reached an agreement to take stricter measures against human smugglers and discourage irregular migration through the Aegean Sea, and improve the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, with the EU vowing €6 billion ($6.8 billion) to help Turkey care for millions of refugees hosted in the country.
Turkey has complained that the EU failed to deliver the promised aid in a timely manner.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 10 million others displaced, according to UN officials.
Writing by Busra Nur Bilgic