Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

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Internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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Internally displaced boys run outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria, on July 30, 2018. (REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi)
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A Syrian man reads a leaflet dropped by Assad regime helicopters in the northwestern Syrian town of Binnish on August 9, 2018, saying the war is about to end and calling for reconciliation. (AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR)
Updated 10 August 2018
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Turkey fears further refugee influx as Assad threatens Idlib offensive

  • Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran
  • Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically

ANKARA: Amid news of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime’s current preparations for a military operation in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, experts anticipate a massive influx of civilians into neighboring Turkey. There are currently around 2.5 million displaced civilians in Idlib, according to the UN.

Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and Turkish Armed Forces have so far built 12 observation posts in the region, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered between the three countries. The majority of Idlib is currently held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the extremist militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit Ankara on Aug. 13 to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on recent developments in Syria.

Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically. The UN will ask Ankara to keep its borders open to the refugees fleeing the regime attack on Idlib, according to press reports.

Metin Corabatir, a former spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Turkey and president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, thinks that, as there could be armed elements among the refugees, Turkey may decide against taking them in, due to domestic security concerns.

“Ankara should negotiate with their international partners over this humanitarian situation, and ask that the burden be shared, rather than struggling alone with a potential refugee influx,” he told Arab News.

Besides security concerns, Turkey’s economic downturn, and a surge of anti-refugee public sentiment also mean Ankara will likely be unwilling to open its borders to refugees from Idlib. Turkey already hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the latest figures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to meet in September, and the refugee issue will top Turkey’s agenda for that meeting.

Corabatir believes that any military offensive by the Syrian regime in Idlib would draw Turkey into the conflict.

“Turkey will either protect the security of its military personnel in the observation towers, or decide to withdraw from the area where it is a guarantor country — which would mean the collapse of the Astana deal,” he said.

Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said Ankara is worried that an attack on Idlib will provoke a new influx of refugees, at a time when it is seeking to stabilize northern Aleppo to accommodate repatriated refugees from southern Turkey.

“Moreover, Ankara does not wish to host more Syrian refugees as their integration is increasingly becoming a topic of heated debate on the domestic scene,” he told Arab News.

According to Hatahet, Ankara does not consider all areas of Idlib to be of equal importance, and does not intend to maintain a presence beyond a narrow buffer along its borders.

“Ultimately, Turkey will seek a grand bargain in the north and would not shy away from using Idlib as a bargaining chip in exchange for stabilizing Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas,” he noted.

Experts suggest that Turkey will expect Russia to restrain Assad’s potential offensive in Idlib. Russia, however, prioritizes the extermination of extremists in the region. Lavrov recently stated that it was “necessary to deal a final blow to terrorists near Idlib.”

Hatahet believes Turkey and Russia could arrange a deal whereby Russia is able to attack extremists in Idlib, but will otherwise remain on the periphery of the territory.

“Erdogan recently spoke to Putin and warned him that targeting civilians in Idlib could destroy the spirit of the Astana accord,” he said, but added that Assad’s regime is growing in confidence and that containing its forces is no easy task.


Jumblatt expresses concern over torture of Syrian refugees

Syrian children are pictured at a refugee camp in the village of Mhammara in the northern Lebanese Akkar region on March 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 min 6 sec ago
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Jumblatt expresses concern over torture of Syrian refugees

  • UN official stresses ‘urgent need to ensure’ their ‘safe, voluntary and dignified return’
  • Some 215,000 Syrian students are currently enrolled in Lebanon's schools 

BEIRUT: Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt has expressed concern about reports that Syrian refugees returning to their country from Lebanon face torture and murder.

This coincides with a debate in Lebanon about whether Syrian refugees should return without waiting for a political solution to the conflict in their country. 

UN Special Coordinator Jan Kubis stressed after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday the “urgent need to ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified return of Syrian refugees home, according to international humanitarian norms.” 

Kubis added: “The UN and the humanitarian community will continue to facilitate these returns as much as possible. Another very important message was also to support the host communities here in Lebanon.”

Mireille Girard, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on Monday said: “The reconstruction process in Syria may not be enough to attract refugees to return. We are working to identify the reasons that will help them to return.”

She added: “The arrival of aid to the refugees is an element of trust that helps them to return. Their dignity and peaceful living must be ensured.”

Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumdjian said the Lebanese General Security “issued lists containing the names of refugees wishing to return to their homes, but the Syrian regime accepted only about 20 percent of them.”

He added: “The solution is to call on the international community to put pressure on Russia, so that Moscow can exert pressure on (Syrian President) Bashar Assad’s regime to show goodwill and invite Syrian refugees to return to their land without conditions, procedures, obstacles and laws that steal property and land from them.”

Lebanese Education Minister Akram Chehayeb said: “The problem is not reconstruction and infrastructure, nor the economic and social situation. The main obstacle is the climate of fear and injustice in Syria.”

He added: “There are 215,000 Syrian students enrolled in public education in Lebanon, 60,000 in private education, and there are informal education programs for those who have not yet attended school to accommodate all children under the age of 18.” 

Chehayeb said: “As long as the displacement crisis continues, and as long as the (Assad) regime’s decision to prevent the (refugees’) return stands … work must continue to absorb the children of displaced Syrians who are outside education to protect Lebanon today and Syria in the future.”