“Under the present circumstances, it is out of the question that Syrian citizens are being returned to Syria, or any other country against their will,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement released late on Thursday. “It should be particularly emphasized that recent allegations concerning a Syrian citizen named Huseyin Harmoush are totally unfounded.”
Harmoush was reportedly the first Syrian military officer to defect from the army, fleeing Syria in June to join a unit called the Free Officers Movement, formed against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to protect unarmed Syrians. According to other refugees at a Turkish camp set up in the border province of Hatay, where tent settlements have been available for Syrians seeking shelter in Turkey for months, Harmoush disappeared two weeks ago after he was allegedly meant to meet Turkish officials, speculating that Turkey might have handed Harmoush over to Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian state-run Sana news agency on Thursday announced that Harmoush had been caught in a special operation in Idlib, and ran an interview with him where he took back his previous claims of Syrian army violence against civilians.
In a popular online video from early June, Harmoush declared that he was “deserting the army and joining the ranks of Syrian youth with a number of individuals” and defined their goal as “protecting unarmed demonstrators who are demanding freedom and democracy.” He cited the reasons for his defection as orders from his commanders to shoot at demonstrators, but in Thursday's interview, Harmoush withdrew these claims. Harmoush did not comment on the circumstances of his return to Syria.
Ankara strongly opposed allegations in the media which brought about speculation that Turkey might have returned the lieutenant to Syria to reciprocate Syria's aid in the capture of terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya back in 1999, after he was expelled from his hideout in Syria at Turkey's request. The Foreign Ministry stressed that it was not possible for Turkey to refuse asylum seekers the humanitarian help they needed and that the country saw it as an obligation to aid Syrians, some 10,000 of whom are still residing in the six tent settlements in Hatay.
“In order to bring to an end to the reasons of their [Syrians'] stay in Turkey, the causes that led them to flee Syria must cease to exist,” the ministry said, and added that it was up to the government of Syria to fix the situation. Turkey also accused Syria of spreading disinformation due to the current state of domestic affairs in the country.
In the interview aired by Syrian state TV on Thursday, Harmoush said he was contacted by opposition figures, including the Muslim Brotherhood, former Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam and others, who offered to help his new movement financially, the AP reported on Thursday. Harmoush also added that the promises given by the opposition were not kept and that his contacts with the opposition fell through. He also claimed that he was told by the Muslim Brotherhood that they were providing weapons to armed forces in Hama, Homs and other places the Syrian regime has attacked in recent weeks, killing scores of protestors it claimed were “armed terrorists.”
Syrian civilians, particularly those living close to the border with Turkey, fled in fear of their lives to the border province of Hatay, and their numbers reached close to 20,000 at the height of clashes in May and June. Turkey has been seeing to the Syrians' needs, providing food, shelter and medical supplies in six camps set up by the Turkish Red Crescent Society (Kızılay), which have attracted international attention and regular visits from UN agencies and other third parties.