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Will Turkey Expel Its Syrian Refugees?

Nearly 4 million refugees are caught in the crossfire of Ankara’s heated domestic politics.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Two women stand in a street with strollers and four children.
Two women stand in a street with strollers and four children.
Syrian women walk in a street with their children in Sanliurfa, Turkey, on May 17. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Um Anas, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, has never felt the kind of hostility in Istanbul she does now. “Unwelcoming looks,” she said, have replaced her neighbors’ formerly warm smiles, and “racist comments have become louder.”

Um Anas worked as a pharmacist in Damascus before fleeing to Turkey amid the Syrian war in 2014 with her husband, a Syrian army official who chose not to fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was hard to cross the border as bombs rained down, then to learn Turkish, find a job, and make a home. But slowly, the couple rebuilt their lives. Um Anas now works at a marketing firm while her husband is a teacher. “My kids have a future here. They are getting [an] excellent education,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself leaving this place and going back to where there are no adequate services but only chaos.”

In recent months, anti-refugee sentiment has soared across Turkey. Ali al-Ahmad—another Syrian refugee who fled the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria, for Gaziantep, a Turkish border city, in 2014—said he no longer speaks Arabic in public: “I have to lower my voice or speak only Turkish, even if I am with my wife on public transport.”

Um Anas, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, has never felt the kind of hostility in Istanbul she does now. “Unwelcoming looks,” she said, have replaced her neighbors’ formerly warm smiles, and “racist comments have become louder.”

Um Anas worked as a pharmacist in Damascus before fleeing to Turkey amid the Syrian war in 2014 with her husband, a Syrian army official who chose not to fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was hard to cross the border as bombs rained down, then to learn Turkish, find a job, and make a home. But slowly, the couple rebuilt their lives. Um Anas now works at a marketing firm while her husband is a teacher. “My kids have a future here. They are getting [an] excellent education,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself leaving this place and going back to where there are no adequate services but only chaos.”

In recent months, anti-refugee sentiment has soared across Turkey. Ali al-Ahmad—another Syrian refugee who fled the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria, for Gaziantep, a Turkish border city, in 2014—said he no longer speaks Arabic in public: “I have to lower my voice or speak only Turkish, even if I am with my wife on public transport.”

As Turkey’s election cycle heats up ahead of next June’s general elections, the fate of the country’s 3.7 million Syrian refugees hangs in the balance. Turks blame the country’s worsening economic crisis on the refugees, and politicians are capitalizing on growing anti-refugee sentiment. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, has promised to send Syrians back within two years if he assumes office. Now, members of both the opposition and the ruling party are calling for the refugees’ return even though Assad’s dictatorship remains in power and there is no end in sight to Syria’s war.

In particular, last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he intends to resettle 1 million Syrians in “safe zones” near the Turkish border in northern Syria. The project, he said, “will cover all needs of daily life, from housing to schools and hospitals, as well as a self-sufficient economic infrastructure, from agriculture to industry.” Turkey has long proposed a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the 559-mile Syrian-Turkish border that would be inhabited by Syrians fleeing the conflict. Currently, this zone is not contiguous but comprises several areas that Ankara has helped Syrian rebels take since 2016. It includes the Syrian cities of Tal Abyad, Jarablus, and Afrin as well as Idlib, which is mostly under the control of Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham but remains under Turkey’s military protection.

Currently, the areas Ankara has identified are far from safe.

Ankara has yet to unveil a plan for what it calls the “voluntary return” of such a large number of people, but Turkish media reported that the government intends to implement an eight-phase process that includes coordinating with civil society organizations, offering vocational courses, and establishing commercial areas.

“It will be a vast project,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the RANE Network, adding that “though it will benefit Turkey’s construction companies, a key part of Erdogan’s political base, … it will take time before it can safely house that large number of refugees.”

Analysts say the Turkish president’s priority is not to return refugees as much as it is to claim Syrian land from Kurds while also shoring up domestic support for his reelection. Ankara has long been accused by analysts and Kurds of using “safe zones” to change the demographics along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Erdogan is interested in diluting the Kurdish population of northern Syria by settling non-Kurdish Syrians along the southern border with Turkey,” Sinan Ciddi, an expert on Turkish politics and a professor at the Marine Corps University, told Foreign Policy.

The establishment of “safe zones” is likely to be bloody. Currently, the areas Ankara has identified are far from safe. Despite a cease-fire in March between Turkey and Assad’s ally Russia, bombings in areas held by Ankara-backed rebels in the northwestern province of Idlib have continued. There have also been sporadic clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in territories recently taken over by Ankara-backed Arab Syrian rebels. Turkey says the SDF has been firing rockets and mortars into towns. It claims the SDF—Washington’s ally against the Islamic State—is synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the guerrilla organization that has fought the Turkish army for decades.

Over the past few weeks, Erdogan has announced that Ankara will expand its operations in northern Syria, launching an attack to push the SDF from the Syrian towns of Manbij and Tel Rifat to expand the safe zone. “We are going into a new phase of our determination to form a 30-kilometer [20-mile] deep safe zone along our southern border,” Erdogan said.

Aside from general destabilization in the region, areas under the control of Turkish-backed rebels tend to be less stable—due to infighting—than those under SDF control. “I am afraid the chaos of the areas held by Turkey-backed groups will end up being copied in [what are currently] SDF held-areas,” said al-Ahmad, one of the Syrian refugees.

This destabilization was evident after the Syrian National Army, a conglomeration of various groups backed by Turkey, seized control of one of the proposed safe zones between the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in an Ankara-led offensive in 2019. The groups also control the area between the cities of Afrin, Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarablus. In addition, the hard-line Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls the rebel enclave of Idlib, has grown closer to the Turkish government.

Many of these groups aligned with the Turkish government have been accused by human rights groups of torture, kidnappings, and the extortion of civilians as well as looting and seizing the property of Kurds who have fled Turkey’s offensives.

According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people, mostly Kurds, were displaced from the town of Afrin alone during the Turkish operation in 2018. Most went east to Tel Rifat, the SDF-controlled town Erdogan now threatens to take. According to Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, the proposed Turkish operation could trigger more displacements.

Ahmad Berro, a Kurdish activist from Qamishli, Syria, doubts Turkey’s claims to want to help Syrian refugees by resettling them. If it does carry out attacks on Manbij and Tel Rifat, Berro said, then “nearly half a million [more] Syrians will be displaced.” Many would be forced to find shelter in areas held by the Syrian government, which Berro said is the last place they wish to return.

Washington has already expressed concern about Erdogan’s plans, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating any such attack would “undermine regional stability” and weaken the fight against the Islamic State. He added that the United States would oppose any such offensive against its Kurdish allies. But at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine takes precedence for the United States and the European Union, there is not likely to be much more international pushback. Russia’s war has changed the calculus of geopolitics, and especially as Turkey continues to threaten Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, criticism of Turkey’s intention to invade Manbij and Tel Rifat is expected to be mild.

For now, Erdogan’s resettlement plan remains technically voluntary, but since the vast majority of Turkey’s Syrian refugees will not want to return to Syria anytime in the near future, Ciddi said Turkish authorities will likely forcibly resettle others.

Many Syrians hope the plan will never see the light of the day and will fade from public consciousness as the election passes. Um Anas, for one, is determined to stay. “I will never go back to Syria the way Turkey has been suggesting,” she said. “In Syria, there is not even one safe place as long as Assad is in power.”

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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