Syrian refugees as Erdoğan’s albatross

Turkey is unlikely to be able to resettle a significant number of Syrian refugees in its planned safe zone, which analysts expect to further erode support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria has displaced some 180,000 people, and many, including former U.S. ambassador Samantha Power, have described what Ankara is doing there as ethnic cleansing, in part because Erdoğan hopes to settle up to 2 million Syrian Arab refugees in the area, much of which has had a Kurdish majority in recent decades. 

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved sanctions against Erdoğan and other Turkish officials for the Syria offensive, sending the measures to the Senate for debate. 

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has serious doubts about Turkey’s refugee resettlement plan. 

“It is delusional,” he said. “Think about the logistics it requires to move 2 million people, and they didn’t get the full zone, they got a tiny little space.”

Erdoğan had hoped to carve out an area some 480 km long and 30 km deep, but as a result of last week’s deal between Turkey and Russia, the Turkish-controlled area is less than 10 km deep and runs about 100 km between the border towns of Tel Abyad to Ras al Ayn. 

On either side of the Turkish-run area, Syrian President Bashar Assad has regained control. “When the Syrian regime ends up back on the border, people aren’t going to want to go back,” said Stein. “That’s not really a safe space for people to go back to.”

In addition, Erdoğan’s plan involves bringing in Turkish construction firms to build new cities to house the refugees, with Europe footing the $27 billion bill. 

“Nobody’s going to fund this $27-billion/euro pipe dream of building buildings and infrastructure inside this zone,” said Stein, “The U.S. won’t do it. I doubt the Europeans will do it, which leaves the cost of this to Ankara.” 

Turkey’s economy climbed out of recession earlier this year, but remains deeply troubled. The AKP suffered perhaps its most significant blow in its 17-year reign in this year’s local elections, and many observers pinned the losses on the economy and rising discontent at the presence of at least 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country. 

“Turkey’s policy with Syrian refugees has been a blunder from the beginning and this crisis has been a long time in the making,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey programme coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy. 

Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at Vienna-based think tank the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, told Ahval this month that Erdoğan could not end the Syria operation without having repatriated a significant number of refugees, as the political cost would be too high. 

Tahiroğlu said it was unrealistic to think Turkey could shuttle even a million refugees into Syria, despite rising Turkish frustrations with refugees and signs of racism against the mostly Syrian Arabs. 

“Erdoğan will not be able to move significant portions of this population into northern Syria any time soon, so that is going to continue exacting political costs at home,” she said. 

Turkey has deported dozens of Syrians, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which issued statements last week saying that Turkey was risking the lives of Syrian refugees by forcing them to return to a war zone. 

“They tried to get rid of some refugees by sending them back to Idlib,” said Stein, adding that this elicited such an international outcry that Turkey appeared to have stopped the practice. 

Tahiroğlu thinks similar practices might return if Turkey is unable to find another way to solve the refugee issue. 

“Turkey needs to find a way to deal with the refugees, many of which do not have a legal status right now,” she said, recommending that Ankara give them citizenship or temporary status and work to integrate them. “But of course that is really difficult in the current climate of rising ultra-nationalism in Turkey.” 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.