Syrians in Turkey fear for future after Erdogan plans talks with Assad

FILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Erdogan visits Iraq

By Burcu Karakas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan's sudden plan to invite his estranged Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad for talks has raised fears among Syrians in Turkey of being sent back, a week after a spate of anti-migrant violence already left them shaken.

Ankara severed ties with Damascus in 2011 after Syria's civil war began and Turkish forces backed anti-Assad forces in the north. But in the last two weeks Erdogan has stressed the need for reconsiliation with Turkey's neighbour.

On Sunday he was quoted as saying he would invite Assad "any time" to work on returning to past relations with Syria, which has been severed by the war that drew in the U.S., Russia, Turkey and several armed groups.

"There are fears that Erdogan will make a deal with Assad and send the Syrians back" to Damascus-held parts of the country, said Samir Alabdullah, of the non-profit Harmoon Centre for Contemporary Studies in Istanbul.

"There are also those who fear they will be stripped of their Turkish citizenship," he said of some of Turkey's more than three million Syrian war migrants.

Turkey host more refugees than any other nation.

The number of Syrian arrivals has worried Turks, who wonder if they will ever return home, prompting Erdogan to promise talks and an eventual "honourable" voluntary return for most.

Ahmad, 19, a Syrian student in Istanbul's Eyupsultan district, said his family is considering selling their properties in Turkey due to the anti-immigrant unrest.

"They are scared even though they have Turkish citizenship," he said, declining to give a surname for security reasons.

In Istanbul's densely populated Sultanbeyli district, which houses many Syrian refugees, residents said attackers broke the windows of a Syrian-owned barber shop and chanted anti-immigrant slogans. A Syrian mother said her son, 8, now "wants to stay indoors because he believes people might do us harm".

Erdogan said public order is a red line for the country.

Syria has said any normalization in ties can only come after Turkey agrees to pull out thousands of troops from the rebel-held areas - a precondition Ankara has called unacceptable, citing security concerns over Syrian Kurdish militants.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based advocacy group, said on Friday Syria is not safe for the return of millions of refugees from Turkey.

Last week, Erdogan - who had somewhat hardened his stance on migrants ahead of presidential elections last year - has said that 670,000 people have returned to settlements in northern Syria and another 1 million people are expected to return.

(Reporting by Burcu Karakas; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)