Syrian refugees in a bind as Turkey rolls up the welcome mat

Syrian refugees in Istanbul face an Oct. 30 deadline to return to the provinces they are registered in. (File photo)
Updated 21 September 2019

Syrian refugees in a bind as Turkey rolls up the welcome mat

  • There are at least 600,000 Syrian refugees registered in Istanbul alone, according to UN
  • Turkey wants Syrian refugees to live in the provinces they are officially registered in

JEDDAH: For eight years now, Turkey has absorbed waves of refugees representing the full gamut of Syrian society from rebel fighters to civilians. But in recent months, the Syrians, who number 3.6 million, have seen the host government’s attitude toward them sour as it struggles with falling popularity and election setbacks.

In July the Turkish government announced that all Syrians should comply with the Temporary Protection Regulation — which states Syrians should be living in the provinces they were officially registered in, and that they need travel permits to go to other provinces.

On July 22, authorities in Istanbul gave Syrians who were not registered in the province until August 20 to leave. This deadline was subsequently extended until Oct. 30 by the Ministry of Interior. According to the International Organization for Migration, there are at least 600,000 Syrian refugees registered in Istanbul.

These announcements have become a source of uncertainty and anxiety among refugee communities as well as international humanitarian organizations. At the same time, reports from Turkey say Syrians found to be not registered in Istanbul or among the estimated half-million lacking Turkish documents have either been sent to another province or deported back to Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 6,200 Syrians, including people with valid residency cards who had been found guilty of code violations or crimes, were deported from Turkey to Syria’s embattled north, including Idlib, in August.

A Syrian regime offensive against rebels in Idlib has piled insecurity and misery on nearly three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.

Since March 2011, the conflict in Syria is believed to have claimed over 400,000 lives and displaced millions more. Nearly 13 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance while at least 5.6 million have become refugees in neighboring countries and in Europe.

Nine years into the conflict, Turkey views the latest developments in Idlib and Hama with apprehension, wary of a fresh influx. About 500,000 Syrians have fled their homes and sought refuge in camps or along the border with Turkey.

But Turkey is no longer the sanctuary it once was. Reports from Istanbul tell of Syrians without proper documents having to dodge surprise identity checks by police that could lead to their deportation. Many refugees are said to be adopting extra precautions before stepping out of their homes and trying to imitate the ways of Turks to blend in with the local population.

Selin Unal, a UNHCR spokesperson, explained that when Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey, they are registered by the Turkish authorities and given “temporary protection” allowing them to stay.

“The Temporary Protection Regulation clearly mandates the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) to carry out the registration of individuals under temporary protection,” she told Arab News.

“Syrian nationals, refugees and stateless persons coming from Syria who need international protection are under temporary protection. The comprehensive legal framework in Turkey provides for Syrians under temporary protection to access services in the national system alongside citizens.”

Responding to the outcry over the treatment of vulnerable Syrians, the Turkish government said what was happening in Istanbul was aimed at tackling irregular migration, while unregistered Syrians were being transferred to temporary accommodation centers for registration.

“We are not sending Syrians back. Allegations to the contrary are baseless,” Hami Aksoy, spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arab News.


370,000 - Turkey’s non-Syrian refugee population.

400,000 - Syrian child refugees not in school in Turkey.

“We fully comply with our international obligations. Syrians are under our protection. Of course, we do hope that one day they can return to Syria safely and voluntarily.

“In fact, when you look at the relevant data that is also the wish of Syrians. However, for that to happen, the international community should work more to create necessary conditions for return.

“Today more than 352,000 have voluntarily returned to Syria. It shows that when the right conditions are there, Syrians are willing to return.”

Speaking at conference of the Human Rights Council of the UN in Switzerland earlier this month, Sadik Arslan, Turkey’s representative to the UN, appealed to the EU to take on a bigger share.

Under a March 2016 agreement with the EU, Turkey imposed stronger controls to curb the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe in return for billions of euros in aid. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Turkey will not be able to handle a new wave of refugees.

Erdogan has also pushed the US to create a so-called safe zone on Syrian territory where the Kurds dominate. Turkey views the YPG, the mainly Kurdish backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Daesh in the area, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency since 1984 for greater cultural and political rights for Turkey’s Kurds.

Claiming that up to three million Syrian refugees could return to their country to live in the “safe zone,” Erdogan has said Turkey might “open its doors” to allow Syrian refugees to cross into Europe if it does not get support.

The EU had pledged $6.6 billion in aid to improve living conditions for Syrian refugees, but according to Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency, only $2.45 billion had been disbursed as of June 2019.

Whatever the truth, Ankara’s generosity towards Syrian refugees since 2011 is not in dispute. “For any country to receive such a high number of people, in this length of time and in such dramatic circumstances, is an enormous challenge,” Unal told Arab News. “We are very aware of the pressures on the host communities and public services in hosting such an unprecedented number of refugees.”

Unal also acknowledges that Turkey’s public system and national institutions “have expanded their services to enable Syrian refugees to access health, education and social services and to pursue self-reliance through work opportunities made possible through work permit regulations.”

However, Unal pointed out that “when people are forced to flee their homes, they leave with only the basics, and in the country of asylum, their capabilities to earn income are limited."

“Refugees, including Syrians, may express their interest to return to their country of origin and approach Provincial Departments for Migration Management (PDMMs) to this effect," she said.

Syrian refugees, for so long welcome in Turkey, have become victims of crackdowns. (AFP)

"We work with the PDMMs and are present during voluntary return interviews to monitor that the person is making a free, informed and voluntary decision to go back.

“All refugees have the fundamental human right to return in safety and dignity to their country of origin at a time of their own choosing. As per the Temporary Protection Regulation, temporary protection status of those who voluntarily return to Syria cease. They may accordingly face challenges if they later wish to return to Turkey.

“Reinstatement of temporary protection status, in this case, may only be possible if a positive assessment is delivered by the national authorities following an individual interview conducted with them as regulated in the legislation.”

Aksoy, the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, is confident the “safe zone” will facilitate and encourage the return of Syrian refugees.

“We want the safe zone to address our national security concerns and to have a sufficient depth,” he told Arab News. “It should also allow voluntary return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons. It should be under our control in close coordination with the US. We also demand the complete removal of PYD/YPG from the zone.”

However, Erdogan’s plan to resettle millions of refugees in northeastern Syria may prove just as controversial as his government’s attempts to deport refugees to Syria’s northwest.

The “safe zone” is seen by the SDF-controlled Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (NES) as a Turkish imposition. The SDF wants a zone along the entirety of the border to prevent Turkish military incursions in the future. The depth of the corridor too has been a point of disagreement between Turkey, the US and the NES.

As things stand, 3.6 million Syrian refugees are trapped between the grinding uncertainty of life in Turkey and the danger of deportation to their broken country.

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

Updated 05 July 2020

Khojir and Natanz explosions wreck Iran’s strategy of deception

  • Blast near military complex outside Tehran on June 26 has drawn global attention to regime’s stretched capabilities
  • Experts say the explosion and another fire at Natanz are reminders of the threat Iran continues to pose to the region

LONDON: A huge explosion east of Tehran in the early hours of June 26 caused widespread fear and confusion in the Iranian capital. This situation was caused in no small part by the government itself, which quickly started spreading misinformation about the cause and intensity of the blast, which occurred near a military complex.

Despite the regime’s evasive actions and statements, snippets of truth have gradually emerged. Experts agree that the explosion is yet another embarrassment for a stretched regime, but behind it lies a reminder of the threat posed to the region and, further afield, by the Islamic Republic.

When video footage of the blast surfaced online, the Iranian Defense Ministry quickly rolled out a spokesman to downplay the incident. Davoud Abdi, speaking on state television, dismissed it as a minor blast at a gas-storage facility in a “public area” of the Parchin military complex, outside the Iranian capital.

A well-known former site of nuclear activity, an explosion at the Parchin military complex would undoubtedly have been a serious incident. However, analysts and social media users quickly poured cold water on this assertion and identified a different military instalment east of Tehran — Khojir — as the true location of the blast.

Samuel Hickey, research analyst at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Arab News that satellite imagery proves that “the explosion took place at the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran, and not at Parchin as suggested in some media outlets.”

Why Tehran would claim the blast occurred at Parchin, not Khojir, is “an intriguing mystery,” said Hickey.

A missile hits a target ship during an Iranian military exercise in the Gulf of Oman in June, as Iran test-fired a “new generation” of cruise missiles; inset below, the mysterious blast on June 25, thought to be at the Khojir miss. (AFP/File Photo)

This question is particularly pertinent given Tehran’s apparent transparency surrounding a July 2 fire at the Natanz complex, a known nuclear facility in Isfahan. The prompt release of pictures of the damage caused and open lines of communication with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) contrasted sharply with its response to the Khojir blast.

This behaviour may suggest a particular sensitivity to information on the activity taking place at Khojir.

Hickey said Khojir “has numerous underground facilities and tunnels whose exact function remains unknown.” So, while specific details of the activity at the site are unclear, he suggests that “providing political cover for any activities at Khojir” is of paramount importance to the regime. 

Hiding the true nature of the Khojir military instalment and its network of underground tunnels, he said, may even “be a higher priority for Tehran than covering for its past nuclear weapons program.”


READ MORE: Fire flares at Iranian power plant, latest in series of incidents

Iran explosion in area with sensitive military site near Tehran


As analysts look to build a clearer picture of the incident and its implications, two key questions remain unanswered: What caused the explosion, and why the cover-up?

Experts have now identified what they see as the two most likely scenarios that led to the blast — sabotage by Israel, or a costly mistake by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Eloise Scott, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey analyst at security and political risk consultancy Sibylline, told Arab News that either of these explanations would be highly embarrassing for Tehran and therefore worthy of a cover-up.

This handout satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows the Konarak support ship before the accident in the port of Konarak, Iran on April 30, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

She said the blast could very well be a “careless mistake” from “the accidentally trigger-happy Revolutionary Guards.” According to Scott, there is a precedent for this kind of error, not least in the January downing of a Ukrainian jet over Tehran by an IRGC missile.

She did not disregard, however, the possibility that the blast was intentional.

“There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether it was a sabotage incident. I wouldn't discount it. I think it is very plausible that it could have been an Israeli cyber-attack, as we’ve seen them do before,” Scott said.

She says there has been a tit-for-tat exchange of cyber-attacks between Israel and Iran in recent weeks, and the Khojir explosion could very well be the latest front in the ongoing covert battle between the two sworn enemies.

A handout picture released by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows shows the atomic enrichment facilities Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometres south of capital Tehran. (Photo: HO / Atomic Energy Organization of Iran / AFP)

Regardless of whether the blast was caused by sabotage or accident, either explanation “makes the IRGC look completely incompetent,” said Scott.

But this incompetence masks an unpredictable and unstable regime that remains a danger to the region.

Michael Elleman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme, says despite the wishful thinking of some observers, Thursday’s blast will not significantly curtail the danger posed by the Iranian missile program.

Iran’s domestic missile capacity is increasingly self-sufficient, he told Arab News, and in the past five to 10 years their arsenal has become focused on “increasing accuracy and lethality.”


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

The proof of this is clear even in just the last six months, according to Elleman.

“As evidenced by attacks like the missile strike on the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq, Iran’s ballistic missile force has become an increasingly effective battlefield weapon,” he said.

The Tehran blast “will not impact their production capacity in any meaningful way.”

Elleman’s view is echoed by Ian Williams, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who says the threat from Iran remains high.

“Despite incidents like this, Iran’s missile threat is very real,” he said. “With its missile attacks on US forces in Iraq and its missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran has demonstrated that it has capable missiles and the willingness to use them.”

This picture made available by the Iranian armed forces office on June 18, 2020 shows a missile being fired from an Iranian warship out at sea during a military exercise in the Gulf of Oman. (AFP/File Photo)

The development of such a dangerous arsenal of long-range missiles, though, has come at a significant cost.

Ali Safavi, a member of Iran's Parliament in Exile and president of Near East Policy Research, says ultimately it is the Iranian people who pay the price.

“The mullahs care very little about the concerns, the welfare and the livelihood of the Iranian people,” he told Arab News. “The Iranian economy is in free fall. Not only due to the maximum pressure policy of the US, but also falling oil prices.”

He accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his government of pouring money into the IRGC’s outsized advanced weaponry program, while ignoring schools, hospitals and rampant poverty.

“In such a disastrous economic situation, one would assume the regime would focus the resources they have on addressing their social and economic problems,” Safavi said.

This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows an Iranian military satellite -- dubbed the Nour -- which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched from the Qassed two-stage launcher in the Markazi desert, a vast expanse in Iran's central plateau, amid tensions with US. (AFP)

“Instead, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these ballistic missiles that they do not seem capable of safely handling.”

The regime’s poorly executed attempt at hiding the truth about the Tehran blast came as no surprise to Safavi, who argues that “deception, denial and duplicity have been a part of this regime’s DNA since 1979.”

The misinformation that followed the Tehran blast is just the latest in a long series of deceptions, he said, adding that the Iranian people are becoming increasingly aware that these cover-ups are futile attempts to hide the fragility of the regime.

Just days after the blast east of Tehran, another explosion at a clinic in the capital’s Tajrish neighborhood added to the jitters amid a devastating outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Fifteen women were among the 19 people who lost their lives in the blast at the Sina Athar health center.

Iran’s military capacity may remain intact after all the explosions, but they have demonstrated that Tehran’s pursuit of regional hegemony in the face of a slow-motion economic collapse is creating domestic problems for which ballistic missiles and other weaponry are no panacea.