Erdogan Wants to Redraw the Middle East’s Ethnic Map

Turkey’s plans in Syria are part of a long and dark history of population transfer stretching back to the Ottoman era.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a map during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

One of the many reasons Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria has been widely condemned is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s associated plan to deport and resettle large numbers of Syrian refugees. Erdogan has long proposed a so-called safe zone in Syria along the Turkish border, and at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24 he outlined a plan to resettle 1 million to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees his country is currently hosting.

The practical obstacles to this proposal are vast. But the biggest political problems are historical.

First, consider the practical objectives. Turkey’s incursion and subsequent deal in October with Russia have left Ankara controlling a 75-mile strip of borderland between the Syrian towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain, with joint Turkish-Russian patrols extending 6 miles south and a U.S.-endorsed safe zone extending 20 miles from the border. This is far smaller than the huge 20-mile-deep corridor running 300 miles along the border that Erdogan was originally hoping for.

Erdogan reiterated his determination to carry out his plan as recently as Nov. 1. But Turkey has been left in control of an area so small—about 400 square miles—and desolate that most analysts doubt millions of refugees could fit there. “The practicalities of settling millions of refugees into what is a pretty narrow corridor of land are pretty ambitious, and I fail to see how Turkey has the capacity to do so,” said Ryan Gingeras, a Turkey expert at the Department of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School.

Another major concern is that most of the resettled refugees would be Arab Sunni Muslims from Aleppo and Idlib—places far to the west of the safe zone, where the local population includes Arab, Kurdish, and Christian populations. Many critics accuse Ankara of attempting to demographically engineer the area to reduce the presence of Kurds and supporters of the Kurdish governing party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey considers an enemy.

Erdogan has long seemed comfortable using demographic engineering as a political tool. Indeed, he has threatened to use Middle Eastern refugees as a weapon against Europe, repeatedly warning he could “open the gates” and flood Europe with the Syrians currently living in Turkey. He also seems quite comfortable opining on which groups belong where in Syria. “Arabs are most suitable for this area,” he told journalists during an interview on Oct. 24, apparently referring to the ethnically mixed north of Syria. “Those areas aren’t appropriate for Kurds’ lifestyles, because they’re desert.”

The Turkish president has already been accused of planning ethnic cleansing, including by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, after about 300,000 mostly Kurdish residents fled northern Syria from Turkish forces and their Arab rebel allies. After the city of Afrin was taken by Turkish forces in March 2018, about 170,000 mostly Kurdish people were displaced, according to the U.N., and many Arabs from elsewhere reportedly moved into their homes.

Dareen Khalifa is the International Crisis Group’s senior Syria analyst, and she recently returned from a trip to northern Syria. “There was a lot of fear initially when the [resettlement] plan was announced, mainly because [local residents] think a lot of these people are going to be Arabs and they’re going to be relocated to predominantly Kurdish towns, so they think it’s a plan to alter the demography of the area,” she said.

Khalifa said it’s impossible to imagine how Turkey could move in large numbers of refugees to the new area, but she still believes Ankara may try: “I do think they’re going to try to at least push for the return of some refugees into these areas to be able to sell it domestically.” Turkey’s huge refugee population, the world’s largest, is widely resented by Turks, which was likely one of the reasons Erdogan’s party faced major losses in local elections in June. According to Amnesty International, Turkey has been forcibly, and often violently, deporting perhaps hundreds of Syrian refugees to Idlib, one of the country’s most dangerous regions, which is illegal under international law.

That brings us to the worrisome historical resonances of Erdogan’s proposed policy. State-facilitated or state-enforced population transfers have a long history in the former Ottoman Empire and have left an indelible imprint on northern Syria in particular. Known as surgun (“deportation” or “exile”) during Ottoman times, they were often used as a form of politically motivated demographic engineering.

For instance, in the 15th century, populations in Anatolia were moved to the Balkans to consolidate Ottoman rule. Later, Muslim refugees known as Muhacirs fled persecution and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Crimea. Between the Russian Empire’s subjugation of Crimea in 1783 and the Second Balkan war in 1913, 5 million to 7 million Muslims escaped into Ottoman territories. They were soon once again subjected to forced migration when Ottoman authorities, seeing them as loyal Muslims, placed the refugees into border regions to secure them or into other areas to dilute religious minorities.

Syria has long been a target of demographic engineering and a destination of exile or refuge. Circassian Muhacirs fleeing a genocide at the hands of the Russians were eventually resettled by Ottoman authorities into the empire’s restless Syrian provinces to keep an eye on the rebellious Druze and Bedouin tribes. They left behind perhaps 100,000 descendants, many of whom have now fled the civil war.

The region’s most infamous incident of forced displacement was the Armenian genocide—not the first massacre of Armenians during Ottoman times—which was recently formally recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives to punish Turkey for its Syrian incursion. Under the guise of tehcir (relocation), most likely over a million Armenians were killed, the majority of them through death marches periodically interrupted by mass killings. Concentration camps in Syria’s Deir Ezzor were some of the final destinations for those who survived the marches.

Demographic engineering and forced displacement also played a central role in the development of the Turkish republic that emerged from the smoldering empire in 1923. “It’s something that was at the basis of the imposition of a unitary state over the whole of Anatolia. It was seen as a legitimate and effective device to impose a national culture over the entirety of the land and its people,” said Gingeras, who has written several books about the republic’s violent foundations.

The few Armenians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans in Turkey’s southeast who survived the various massacres of Christians during World War I soon found themselves in a country eager to finalize their erasure. Newspapers portrayed them as enemies and set deadlines for them to leave. Many ended up fleeing to northern Syria, then governed as a French mandate. The French, eager to support minorities deemed friendly in order to weaken the Sunni Arab majority, were only too happy to accommodate them. The Christian refugees’ descendants today, some of whom have reportedly fled Ras al-Ain, are vehemently opposed to Turkey’s operation, which has rekindled past traumas.

Having eliminated most Christians in the genocide and the 1923 forced population exchange with Greece, Turkey subsequently targeted the large Kurdish minority. Near-constant uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s in the fledgling republic’s Kurdish-majority southeast were answered with massacres and forced the relocation of tens of thousands of Kurds to western provinces, where Turkish identity and culture was imposed on them. Tens of thousands more fled to Syria’s northeastern Jazira region, only to be subjected to Baathist Arabization policies decades later and the Turkish onslaught today. The 1934 Resettlement Law aimed at Turkifying the country, or, in the words of then-Interior Minister Sukru Kaya, “to create a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment.”

Turkey’s long record of forced relocations has continued well into recent history, with Kurdish people continuing to bear the brunt of it. “You see evidence of it relatively recently, as late as the ’90s and later. One could argue that demographic engineering was at the core of the counterinsurgency strategy against the PKK in 2015 and 2016,” Gingeras said, referring to the Kurdish militant group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Millions were displaced when Turkish forces evacuated and often burned down thousands of villages in the 1990s. After a cease-fire ended in 2015 and widespread fighting erupted in cities in the southeast, Amnesty estimated that almost half a million civilians were displaced.

It remains to be seen whether or not Ankara will go through with its plan to move Syrian refugees into the country’s new supposed safe zone. But it’s clear that this isn’t how those refugees, and the Syrians still at home, imagined that their country would one day be made whole—with the crimes of the war followed by potential new crimes in an ostensible time of peace.

Nick Ashdown is a journalist covering Turkey.

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