Turkey Pitches Plan to Settle 1 Million Refugees in Northern Syria 

Questions arise as to whether Erdogan’s $26 billion megaproject is intended to clear his border of Kurds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes the case for a Syrian "safe zone" at a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York on Sept. 24. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Turkey has prepared a detailed plan for settling 1 million Syrians in 140 villages in territory it seized along a 20-mile stretch of its border with northern Syria, marking one of the largest public construction projects on foreign-occupied land in modern history, according to the confidential plan Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently presented to the United Nations.

The plan has heightened concerns that Turkey may be preparing to pressure Syrian refugees to return to an area that remains unsafe, and that it might intend to alter the demographics of the region, preventing the region’s Kurdish population to return to their traditional lands following Erdogan’s invasion in October.

The building project—which would require more than $26 billion in foreign assistance—was detailed in a glossy six-page document Erdogan shared with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at a Nov. 1 meeting in Istanbul. The document—which was reviewed by Foreign Policy—resembles a real estate prospectus for a large residential development project, promising new residents access to schools, hospitals, mosques, and sporting arenas, with some getting an acre of agricultural land.

“I’m not sure in recent history I have ever seen a plan of the ambition of the one that the president of Turkey has put on the table,” said Hardin Lang, a former U.N. peacekeeping official who serves as vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International, and who has been briefed on the plan. “They seem to be engaged in an attempt to ethnically reengineer this sliver of territory along the border in northeast Syria.”

Turkey is hoping to secure financial and political support for its settlement project from the United Nations and key European governments. Erdogan has warned European powers that he will “open the doors” for refugees seeking to cross Turkey’s borders and enter Europe.

During his meeting with Erdogan, Guterres highlighted the importance of “the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees,” according to a U.N. spokesman. He told Erdogan that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would establish a task force to study the proposal. The decision has rankled some humanitarian advocates, who believed that the U.N. chief should have rejected the plan outright.

The refugee agency held discussions with Turkey last month in Geneva and Ankara, Turkey, and it has plans for a third round of talks in Geneva early next year. “The discussions were constructive and affirmed the principles for the voluntary and sustainable return of refugees to their places of origin in safety and dignity,” Chris Boian, the spokesperson for the refugee agency, told Foreign Policy in an email.

“UNHCR’s position is clear – refugees have the right to return to their places of origin or of their choosing across Syria and they need and deserve support if they do,” Boian added. “Any return of refugees to Syria has to be voluntary, dignified and at a time when it is safe to return. It is up to refugees to decide if and when they wish to return.”

In early October, Erdogan ordered an invasion—dubbed Operation Peace Spring—of northeast Syria, displacing more than 200,000 civilians and expanding a 20-mile-deep, 300-mile-long buffer zone into Syrian territory. The operation followed a phone call between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump, in which Trump agreed to withdraw a small contingent of U.S. troops in the way of the invasion, effectively granting a green light.

Turkey has already begun quietly shuttling small numbers of Syrian refugees into northeastern Syria, which has traditionally been home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians.

In late November, hundreds of citizens crossed the border from Turkey into the border towns, Foreign Policy reported. Turkey says the convoy was made up of people from the Kurdish-held region, but locals say the refugees are from elsewhere in Syria—Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and further afield areas such as Idlib, Ghouta, Homs, and even Iraq. The majority are likely the families of Turkish-backed fighters who have been terrorizing the local population.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, called on Trump and the international community to stop the Turkish proxies’ persecution of the minority Kurds and forced ethnic cleansing of the region.

“Mr. President … the Turks are doing ethnic cleansing inside this area as they did in Afrin,” Abdi said, referring to Turkey’s bloody 2018 invasion of Syria’s majority-Kurdish Afrin district. “America should not allow forced changes in demography and ethnic cleansing in the 21st century.”

“One could safely say there’s been a lot of Kurdish families pushed out,” said Michael Mulroy, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense until Dec. 1 and is an ABC News analyst. “That is a huge problem.”

Turkey is home to nearly 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees, making it the country with the world’s largest refugee population.

Even before Turkey’s latest military intervention in Syria, Erdogan signaled his intention in September to resettle up to 2 million refugees in the new safe zone, establishing a buffer that Ankara believes will strengthen its hand in its decadeslong war against Kurdish militants.

“If this safe zone can be declared, we can resettle confidently somewhere between 1 to 2 million refugees,” Erdogan told the U.N. General Assembly in late September. “Whether with the U.S. or the coalition forces, Russia and Iran, we can walk shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand so refugees can resettle, saving them from tent camps and container camps.”

For the time being, Turkey’s leader is struggling to secure financial support from foreign governments or financial institutions, according to diplomatic sources. But the plan underscored the scope of Erdogan’s ambitions to convert military gains it has achieved in its October military push into Syria.

The Turkish proposal—which includes a photo of a sample project image with a cluster of more than 100 newly constructed six-story buildings —calls for the construction of 140,000 housing units, 1,000 in each village. Each village will have two mosques, two schools with 16 classrooms, a youth center, and an indoor sports hall and management center.”

The villages would be encompassed by a larger group of 10 districts. Each of the districts would have 6,000 two- and three-bedroom housing units, a central mosque, 10 neighborhood mosques, eight primary schools, one high school, two indoor sports halls, five youth centers, one small stadium, four neighborhood soccer fields, hospitals, industrial sites, and universities.

The move comes as the U.N. Security Council is debating a request by Turkey to open a new humanitarian crossing point from Turkey through the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which rests at the center of Turkey’s ambitious land program.

The council previously authorized four U.N.-approved crossing points, including two in Turkey and one in Iraq that allow aid organizations to reach more than 4 million people in need of assistance. The fourth crossing point, on the Jordanian border, is currently inactive.

The U.N.’s authorization of border aid crossings is essential in Syria, where millions of needy Syrians live in rebel-controlled territory. U.N. aid agencies and relief organizations maintain they need a U.N. mandate to deliver assistance, because the Syrian government opposes their presence in northwestern and northeastern Syria.

The proposal to establish a fifth crossing was first floated in the council by the United States, according to several diplomats. Two diplomats said that the U.S. special envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, recommended Turkey seek the U.N. involvement in supplying humanitarian aid through Tal Abyad.

In a press conference earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, said “we support Turkey adding the fifth border [crossing]. That is very important in order to access the growing number of humanitarian needs.”

“Millions of people in Syria rely on this U.N. cross-border [aid],” she said. “There is no plan B. So, this has to happen. There is no alternative. We are going to strongly support this aid mandate for the next 12 months.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss confidential discussions in the U.N. Security Council but said that the United States strives to ensure the U.N. takes steps to get humanitarian aid “to every single Syrian who needs it, regardless of who controls the territory.”

“The United States position is that, if and when conditions allow, refugee returns should be done in conjunction with the [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] to ensure the refugees return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner,” the spokesperson added. “The United States does not support forced or coerced relocations of refugees or [internally displaced persons] to northeast Syria, nor does it support Syrian refugees not from the northeast being relocated to that area.”

The spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that Turkey has committed, along with other members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, “to refrain from any action that could lead to a change in the democratic structures” in northeastern Syria. “Our European partners have also been clear that they will not financially support any plan that includes forced or coerced repatriations from Turkey into northeast Syria.”

Experts on the region have expressed some concern that a new international crossing route through Tal Abyad could lend greater legitimacy to Turkey’s occupation of Syrian territory and potentially help provide financial and political support for its programs.

Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, has informed council members that there is a need to provide humanitarian assistance to some 70,000 to 90,000 people around Tal Abyad who were displaced by the Turkish incursion, a fraction of the more than 3.7 million Syrians who receive aid through two existing Turkish crossing points. But Lowcock, according to several diplomatic sources, did not conduct a formal needs assessment of the plan and did not extensively consult other U.N. agencies that would be responsible for delivering assistance.

“I support the proposal to add the border crossing at Tal Abyad to the crossings mandated for use by the United Nations,” he wrote the council Wednesday. “There are many vulnerable people in and around that area who we could reach through the crossing but who, given recent changes on the ground, we assess the United Nations is otherwise unlikely to be able to help.”

Russia—which wants to shut down existing border crossings—has thrown the council negotiations into turmoil by threatening to veto it. It has proposed its own competing resolution that would shut down two existing border crossings in Jordan, which had not been active, and Iraq, which has served as the key entry point for medical supplies into Syria.

The United States, meanwhile, blocked an effort by the 10 nonpermanent members of the council to put forward a compromise resolution that would keep the existing crossing points but would not add one at Tal Abyad. Lowcock, meanwhile, urged the council to act quickly to renew the U.N. mandate to deliver the cross-border aid before it expires next month.

“Without the cross-border operation, we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians,” Lowcock warned the council. “That would cause a rapid increase in hunger and disease, resulting in death, suffering and further displacement – including across borders – for a vulnerable population who have already suffered unspeakable tragedies as a result of almost nine years of conflict.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman