UPDATES WITH MORE REMARKS OF ERDOGAN
By Muhammet Emin Avundukluoglu
ANKARA (AA) - The only reason of Turkey's existence in Syria is the terror threat towards the country's borders, said the Turkish president on Tuesday.
"Turkey backs the territorial integrity of Syria and the political and administrative unity of Syrians," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during his speech at the opening of Turkish parliament’s third legislative session of the year in the capital Ankara.
"The only reason of our existence in Syria is that the terror threat towards our borders has turned to a barrier preventing the return of the Syrians," said Erdogan.
"We do not back the war, clash, blood shed, death or suffering in Syria", he said.
Syria has been gripped by conflict since 2011 when demonstrations seeking democratic reforms were fiercely cracked down on by the Syrian regime.
More than half a million people have died in the ensuing conflict and millions more have been displaced as large swaths of Syria have been reduced to rubble.
Erdogan also said that a total of 360,000 Syrians had returned to areas cleared of terrorists with Turkey's anti-terror operations.
Turkey is aware of the economic, social, and cultural challenges of hosting 3.65 million Syrians, he said.
"We also know that no country other than Turkey can shoulder such a burden or can manage it for such a long time," said Erdogan.
"However, we do not have a thought of hosting millions of refugees in our territories forever," he added.
Since 2011, over 5 million civilians have become refugees, and Turkey hosts over 3.6 million of them, being the country hosting the highest number of refugees in the world.
Erdogan said that Turkey planned to settle 2 million Syrians in 30-km-wide safe zone to be set up in Syria, starting from Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, including Manbij.
Turkey will settle 1 million Syrians in 140 villages, and 50 districts to be established in Syria safe zone with the support of international community, he said.
"We have already started preliminary work on building new villages and districts and defined the locations and calculated the costs. We will also conduct improvement efforts in other locations [in Syria]," said Erdogan.
Turkey has long championed the idea of terrorist-free safe zones in Syria and stressed ridding the area of the terrorist YPG/PKK, the Syrian branch of the PKK, as well as resettling Syrian migrants currently in Turkey.
Erdogan has repeatedly said that Ankara would carry out its own operation to establish a safe zone in northern Syria should talks with the U.S. fail.
Turkish and U.S. military officials agreed on Aug. 7 to set up a safe zone in northern Syria and develop a peace corridor to facilitate the movement of displaced Syrians who want to return home.
Erdogan noted that they would continue to work on turning Turkey into one of the 10 largest economies of the world.
"Turkey's tourism revenues increased 12% last year", Erdogan said, and added: "It will rise 10% this year. We will hopefully host 50 million tourists [by the end of this year]."
"Both our debt stock and budget deficit-to-GDP rate are at good levels compared to the EU standards," he said.
According to the new economic program announced by Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak on Monday, Turkey aims to reach the budget deficit-to-GDP rate of 2.9% for the next two years and 2.6% for 2022.