Erdogan says 2 million-3 million Syrian refugees can be resettled in 'safe zone'

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that a planned “safe zone” in northern Syria could host 2 million to 3 million Syrian refugees who have settled in Turkey and Europe after eight years of war at home.

A Syrian refugee man walks between tents in Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Addressing academics in Ankara, Erdogan also repeated that Turkey would act on its own if the zone, planned jointly with the United States in Syria’s northeast, failed to materialize.

“Through making east of Euphrates a safe place, and depending on the depth of this safe zone, we can resettle 2-3 million displaced Syrians currently living in our country and Europe,” he said.

“We want to see strong support from European countries, both on the issues of Idlib and the region east of Euphrates. We are full for words, and we expect action,” Erdogan added.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Its troops are also stationed in Syria’s northwest Idlib region, where a Russian-backed government offensive has pushed north in recent months, raising the prospect of a new wave of refugees.

“If we cannot establish peace in Idlib swiftly, we will be unable to shoulder the burden of 4 million Syrians living in that region,” Erdogan added.

Next week, Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump will discuss plans to establish what Turkey describes as a safe zone along 450 km (280 miles) of Syrian border stretching east from the Euphrates river to the Iraq border, a region controlled mainly by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters.

The YPG has been a main U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. U.S. support for the fighters has infuriated Turkey and strained ties with Washington.

“We will initiate our own plans in two weeks if no results come from the work with United States on the formation of a safe zone,” Erdogan said.

In Washington, a senior Pentagon official said the United States was working to implement the security mechanism.

“I won’t address the specifics of what the intent might be of President Erdogan but I can tell you from the U.S. perspective, we’re heavily engaged on a daily basis with the Turkish military and the Turkish government on implementing the security mechanism,” Chris Maier, the director of the Defeat-ISIS task force, said.

He added that the United States is continuing to provide “very tailored arms” and vehicles to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance that includes the YPG, for fighting Islamic State remnants.

Maier said thousands of Islamic State fighters still remained in Iraq and Syria as part of a “clandestine insurgency.”

“The reason we use clandestine insurgency is because we think this is a calculated effort on their part to stay below the radar screen, regather strength and then potentially attempt to establish a caliphate or something more overt down the road,” he added.

Reporting by Ece Toksabay. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Steve Orlofsky