Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have gone home in parts of Syria cleared of terrorist groups by cross-border Turkish military operations, said the nation's foreign minister on Friday.
“More than 346,000 Syrians have returned to areas of Syria which were cleared of terrorists in Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told a joint press conference in Lebanon alongside his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil, referring to Turkish operations since 2016.
Speaking to reporters in the Lebanese capital Beirut, where he is paying an official visit, Cavusoglu touched on the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their country.
He said Turkey can share its experience with Lebanon on how to provide security to Syrian refugees when they return to their motherland.
“We can organize a joint forum with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq on Syrian refugees’ return to their country,” he said. “We can also invite international community to the forum.”
He called on the international community to be more “sensitive” towards Syrian refugees.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. Lebanon, with 1.5 million, is the second.
Since 2016, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations in northern Syria have liberated regions including Al-Bab, Afrin, and Azaz from YPG/PKK and Daesh terrorists, making it possible for Syrians who fled the violence there to return home.
Cavusoglu said any agreement on the Eastern Mediterranean without involving Turkey and Turkish Cypriots will be “null and void”.
He pointed out that Turkey works on its own continental shelf to protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriots.
Turkey has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration’s unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) also has rights to the resources in the area.
Since spring this year, Ankara has sent two drilling vessels -- Fatih and most recently Yavuz -- to the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting the right of Turkey and the TRNC to the resources of the region.
Turkey’s first seismic vessel, the Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa, bought from Norway in 2013, has been conducting exploration in the Mediterranean since April 2017.
Athens and Greek Cypriots have opposed the move, threatening to arrest the ships’ crews and enlisting EU leaders to join their criticism.
In 1974, following a coup aiming at Cyprus’ annexation by Greece, Ankara had to intervene as a guarantor power. In 1983, the TRNC was founded.
The decades since then have seen several attempts to resolve the dispute, all ending in failure. The latest one, held with the participation of the guarantor countries -- Turkey, Greece, and the U.K. -- ended in 2017 in Switzerland.
Bilateral relations with Lebanon
Cavusoglu said Turkey will continue to provide security and stability to Lebanon within the framework of bilateral relations.
The top diplomat said he discussed with top Lebanese officials the ways to strengthen the Lebanese economy and welfare.
“We know and encourage Turkish companies’ interest for investment in Lebanon,” he said.
Referring to the visa-free travel between the two countries, he said it enabled more Turkish people to visit Lebanon.
“Over one million Lebanese visit Turkey, especially my hometown [Mediterranean resort city of] Antalya,” he added.
Lebanon’s Basil, for his part, also thanked Turkey for its stance behind his country against the Israeli border violations.
He also said the top diplomats discussed economic relations between the two countries, adding that Turkey and Lebanon agreed to boost them further.
Basil pointed out that both countries face common challenges -- especially on Syria crisis -- and made a significant contribution to the fight against terrorism.
Syria has only just begun to emerge from a devastating conflict that began in 2011 when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on demonstrators with unexpected ferocity.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed or displaced in the conflict, mainly by regime airstrikes targeting opposition-held areas.
During his visit, Cavusoglu also met with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun in the Beiteddine Palace near the country's capital.
In addition to bilateral relations and regional issues, matters pertaining to Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were also discussed at the meeting, according to diplomatic sources.
Aoun, for his part, said efforts should be made for the return of estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, adding that humanitarian assistance should continue to be delivered to them even after their return to the homeland.
The two countries also underlined that they shared the same stance on the issue of Palestine.
Cavusoglu stressed that Turkey will continue to defend the rights of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.
"We are announcing to everyone, especially the U.S., that Palestinian rights cannot be obtained by money," he said.
"We’ve conveyed our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s greetings to President Michel Aoun. We stressed the importance of security and stability of brotherly Lebanon for our region. We discussed Syria, Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean," Cavusoglu said on Twitter after the meeting.
* With additional writing by Jeyhun Aliyev
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