A woman and her children flee Northern Syria as Turkish forces advance. Photo source: REUTERS/Rodi Said.
At a meeting in mid-September Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined a plan to create a safe zone in northern Syria wherein up to three million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey could be relocated.[i] This plan, though, rests on a shaky foundation that is vulnerable to collapse and puts civilians at risk. Moving civilians into contested territory within Syria would make them vulnerable to attacks by Kurdish groups and from the Syrian army when it attempts to re-take northern Syria.
Wary of Kurdish militias on its border, Erdogan has threatened to unilaterally invade northeastern Syria repeatedly over the past few months. In an attempt to forestall such an invasion, the United States proposed the creation of a joint US-Turkish administrated safe zone in northern Syria that would be devoid of Kurdish troops.[ii] Turkey argued for expanding this safe zone from the Euphrates River all the way to the Syria-Iraq-Turkey border and extending it 30-40km into the interior of Syria. Such a zone would not only be free of the Kurdish militias that Turkey fears but would also allow Turkey to repatriate some of the Syrian refugees that have been straining its economy. On October 9th, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Turkey invaded northern Syria to put this plan into action in Operation Peace Spring.[iii] Turkish forces are now battling the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish Marxist group that has conducted a terrorist campaign against the Turkish state for decades. Attacking the SDF in order to create a safe zone to repatriate refugees is counterproductive, as this attack is creating more refugees in an effort to repatriate other refugees. Human rights organizations have estimated that between 60,000 – 100,000 civilians had become displaced in the first few hours of fighting alone.[iv] Even if Turkey is ultimately successful in forcing out the SDF, security and stability in northern Syria is far from assured.
In January of 2018, the Turkish Armed Forces and its allies invaded the Afrin district in northern Aleppo in an attempt to push back the YPG. The Turkish military backed up by a variety of rebel groups, most notably the Turkish backed-Free Syrian Army (TFSA), were able to capture the city and surrounding villages, but have struggled to maintain order. Turkey and its allies have been accused of a variety of human rights abuses against the mostly Kurdish population of Afrin. Residents of the city have accused Turkish forces of arbitrary detentions, torture, forced disappearances and widespread looting.[v] Efforts to bring in refugees from other parts of Syria have also been condemned as an attempt to forcibly change the demographics of Afrin and make the Kurds a minority in the region.[vi] Such actions have led to retaliatory attacks from a variety of non-state actors.
Soon after taking control of Afrin, Turkey found itself facing an insurgency carried out by a variety of shadowy organizations that are believed to have ties to the YPG. Groups such as the Afrin Liberation Forces, Wrath of Olives, and the Afrin Falcons were formed in the wake of Operation of Olive Branch with the purpose of expelling Turkey and its allies from the disputed territory. The initial attacks targeted Turkish backed forces, but now civilians have also been subjected to the violence. Those that are seen as “collaborators” with the Turkish forces have been assassinated. Improvised explosive devices have also been detonated in crowded public places, leading to civilian casualties.[vii] Groups such as the Wrath of Olives have willingly admitted to targeting civilians and have warned that they will continue to target collaborators and those that they refer to as “settlers.” These settlers are displaced Syrians that before the war lived elsewhere but have now re-settled in Afrin.[viii] Turkey and its allies have proven unable to defeat this insurgency as it approaches its second year.
The most recent invasion, Operation Peace Spring, will likely succeed in wresting control from the SDF, but this area will then become the battleground for another insurgency between Kurdish militant groups and the Turkish forces. A dangerous situation similar to what is now occurring in Afrin. In addition, the unclear future of northern Syria makes it an unsuitable location to for the repatriation of refugees.
Turkey intends to control northern Syria through the use of Turkish troops and their affiliated rebel groups. Such a situation would be untenable in the long run as the Syrian government would eventually move to re-take this area and unify their fractured country. In April the Syrian government, backed up by Russian airpower, began a massive operation to take back the rebel-held province of Idlib. The campaign has caused 800 deaths since it began, 200 of which have been children.[ix] It has also brought Turkey and Syria to the brink of direct conflict and Turkish officials have threatened military action against the Syrian Arab Army.[x] Once the Syrians are able to recapture Idlib, they will certainly set their sights on recapturing the rest of the north, including the areas where refugees are meant to be resettled. Even if the two nations were able to find a solution that would allow for a peaceful withdrawal of Turkish troops, it is unlikely that the TFSA and other allied groups would all peacefully lay down their arms. The recently repatriated refugees would be caught between the advancing Syrian regime and Turkish forces. Many of the civilians would likely flee back into Turkey, undoing any potential progress in the resettlement of refugees.
The Turkish incursion into northern Syria in all likelihood is less about the repatriation of refugees and more about dislodging the YPG from northern Syria. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs to push back on the narrative that this safe zone will be created to help Syrian refugees and forcefully voice to the international community the dangers posed to civilians by such a plan. Before any refugees can begin to be repatriated, a sustainable solution in northern Syria must be developed. Beyond working to resolve the immediate Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the U.S. needs to deepen discussions with Russia over the long-term future of Syria. Any repatriation plan that ignores Russian and Syrian interests is bound to collapse and lead to more civilian casualties. Now that the United States has withdrawn troops from Syria it has a weaker hand than ever, and this makes it even more crucial that the U.S. step up diplomatic efforts and cooperate with friends and foes to try and salvage a deteriorating situation.
[ii] Murad Sezer, “Turkish Military Enters Syria to Begin Joint U.S. ‘Safe Zone’ Patrol,” Reuters, September 8, 2019, https://reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey/turkish-military-enters-syria-to-begin-joint-us-safe-zone-patrol-idUSKCN1VT05H.
[iii] “Turkey Syria Offensive: Dozens Killed as Assault Continues,” BBC News, October 11, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50011468.
[iv] Chantal Da Silva, “As Many as 100,000 People May Have Already Been Displaced by Turkish Offensive in Syria, Rights Groups Claim,” Newsweek, October 10, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/turkey-offensive-100000-displaced-syria-rights-groups-warn-1464354.
[v] “Syria: Turkey Must Stop Serious Violations by Allied Groups and Its Own Forces in Afrin,” Amnesty International, August 2, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/08/syria-turkey-must-stop-serious-violations-by-allied-groups-and-its-own-forces-in-afrin/.
[vi] Sirwan Kajjo, “Rights Groups: Abuses on the Rise in Syria’s Afrin,” Voice of America, June 1, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/rights-groups-abuses-rise-syrias-afrin.
[vii] Alexander McKeever, “Wrath of the Olives: Tracking the Afrin Insurgency Through Social Media,” Bellingcat, July 17, 2019, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/03/01/wrath-of-the-olives-tracking-the-afrin-insurgency-through-social-media/.
[ix] Simon Tisdall, “Don’t Call Them Syria’s Child Casualties. This Is the Slaughter of the Innocents,” The Guardian, August 4, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/03/syria-idlib-child-deaths-airstrikes-assad-putin-russia.
[x] “Leaders of Turkey, Russia, Iran Set to Tackle Syria Turmoil,” Reuters, September 15, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-summit/leaders-of-turkey-russia-iran-set-to-tackle-syria-turmoil-idUSKBN1W00FU.