Assad and Ankara at odds over Syrian repatriation project

Protesters hurl stones at Turkish forces during a demonstration against Turkey’s presence in northern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Assad and Ankara at odds over Syrian repatriation project

  • Demographic challenges ‘still a source of fear for those who are concerned about the war-torn country’

ANKARA: After more than eight years of civil conflict, the face of Syria is changing, and the demographic challenges are still a source of fear for those who are concerned about the country’s future.

In an interview with Russia-24 and Rossiya Segodnya on Nov. 15, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that Turkey cannot repatriate millions of Syrian refugees to northern Syria, and if it does so, it is likely to trigger an “ethnic conflict” between the landowners, villages, cities, farms and newcomers.

Turkey justified its recent military operation into northeastern Syria as a move to eliminate security threats from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and Daesh as well as to ease the return of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey after the formation of a 30-km-wide “safe zone” in the area.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced that Ankara may send about 3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and Europe to that “safe zone.”

Ankara also unveiled in late September its safe zone rebuilding project. The project sparked debate about whether it is an attempt to demographically re-engineer the region or an assistance to the Syrian refugees for a voluntary return. Under the project, Turkey committed to build some 200,000 residential buildings, hospitals, schools as well as governmental facilities.

Turkey currently hosts about 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

But there are many social barriers to the resettlement plan, as some experts are concerned that this move may dilute the local Kurdish communities with a big influx of Syrian Arab refugees, mainly coming from Aleppo and Idlib, creating social conflicts and the problem of expropriated properties.

The majority of the areas where Turkey aims to establish a safe zone for the resettlement of Syrian refugees have a Kurdish majority, especially the Jazirah region and Al-Hasakah, including the city of Qamishli, while other areas in northeastern Syria have a predominant Arab population or a mixed population of Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

Bill Park, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, thinks there is no quick and easy solution for managing demographic challenges.

“First, refugees won’t willingly return to a conflict zone that requires massive reconstruction. Most would prefer to remain in Turkey,” he told Arab News.

According to Park, whether Turkey is prepared to forcibly repatriate them is a key question because kicking them out of Turkey toward Europe, as Erdogan has repeatedly threatened in fiery speeches, is not feasible as “Europe will not readily accept refugees that Turkey won’t accept.

“Second, most of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are not from the ‘safe zone,’ so Assad is correct — they would mainly be new settlers in houses, on lands that belong to others, including Kurds but local Arabs and others too. Of course, it would create conflicts,” he noted.

For Park, Erdogan is not interested in resolving any ethnic conflict as most Kurds in northern Syria are the descendants of Kurds who fled Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s.

“If he now seeks to replace those Kurds with Arab returnees, where will they go? Iraqi Kurdistan perhaps? And so, it goes on. First Syria must stabilize, then it must be rebuilt. Turkey can play a major role in the rebuilding, but it will take a long time,” he said.

The International refugee law precludes any move to forcibly repatriate refugees to conflict zones.

In early October, the EU, after emphasizing the UN’s criteria for refugee return, said “any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable,” adding that “the EU will not provide stabilization or development assistance in areas where the rights of local populations are ignored.”

According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, “there is no ‘safe zone’ in northeastern Syria despite Erdogan’s fictional plans.

“Most of the Syrian refugees fled Assad’s brutal repression, particularly its torture and execution chambers where tens of thousands have been murdered. The Syrian government is still arresting some returning refugees and placing them in detention or forcibly conscripting them into the Syrian Army.”

Roth believes that few refugees will voluntarily return given that the Syrian military is now operating in much of northeastern Syria.

Human Rights Watch asserts that Turkey’s “safe zone” plan, without appropriate safeguards, heightens risks for returning refugees and that the promise of safety can easily turn into an illusion, where belligerent forces intermingling with civilians can use the area to launch attacks, rendering the region a new military target.

Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

Updated 11 December 2019

Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

  • On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2
  • New elections would add to the political challenges facing Benjamin Netanyahu
JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament began rushing through a bill on Wednesday to call a third general election within a year as talks between embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival broke down ahead of a midnight deadline.
A deal to avert a new election must be reached before 11:59 p.m. (2159 GMT), following a deadlocked vote in September.
But Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have repeatedly failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament, have spent days trading blame for failing coalition talks.
On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2.
It must face three more plenary readings and votes during the day before being passed.
New elections would add to the political challenges facing Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving premier, now governing in a caretaker capacity — at a time when, weakened by corruption charges, he must fend off internal challengers in his right-wing Likud party.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but disagreed on who should lead it.
Last month, when Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges, Gantz called on him to step down.
On Tuesday night Netanyahu called on Gantz to stop “spinning.”
“After 80 days, it’s time that for one day, for the citizens of Israel, we sit and have a serious discussion about forming a broad unity government. It’s not too late,” he said on social media.
Gantz said his party was making “efforts to find a way to form a government without us giving up the fundamental principles that brought us into politics.”
If confirmed, it would be the first time Israel’s weary electorate has been asked to go to the polls for a third time within 12 months.
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September’s election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and forge a workable coalition but failed, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has expressed mounting anger and frustration with the entire political class.
Both parties had been trying to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial kingmaker, to join their blocs.
But the former nightclub bouncer, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party holds the balance of power, has refused.
Kann Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had abandoned hopes of earning Lieberman’s endorsement.
Lieberman pointed out that Likud and Blue and White wouldn’t need his support if they could agree to work together.
“If during the next 24 hours a government is not formed it will be solely because the leaders of the two big parties — Likud and Blue and White — were not willing to set aside their egos,” he said on Facebook Tuesday.
“All the rest is lies and excuses.”
Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.
He strongly denies the allegations and accuses the media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.
No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite an indictment.
He also faces a potential challenge from within his own Likud party.
To boost his support, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as signing a defense treaty with the United States.
He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu’s agenda.
Blue and White, meanwhile, pledged Monday to run with only one leader in the next election — Gantz.
Previously Yair Lapid, second in command in the coalition, was meant to alternate the premiership, but on Monday Lapid said: “We’ll all get behind Benny Gantz, our candidate for prime minister.”
Despite Netanyahu’s indictment, polls suggest that a third round of elections could still be neck and neck — prompting some Israelis to speculate about yet another electoral stalemate.
A commentary writer for the Israel Hayom newspaper suggested that “a fourth election is even now visible on the horizon sometime in early September 2020.”