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.