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October 10, 2019
Since 2011, the world has watched, and major players have participated in, the disintegration of Syria. The results of the war in Syria are the results of war everywhere – death, massive destruction of infrastructure and forced migration. The war in Syria has created 12.7 million displaced people – more than half the pre-war population of the country. 6.6 million of these people have left Syria and are considered refugees; 3.6 million of these refugees live in Turkey. Most of the rest are in Lebanon and Jordan. Smaller communities live in Egypt and Iraq. Relatively few have made it to Europe and only a tiny number have been allowed into the United States. Only 10% of the refugees from Syria are in camps – the largest camps, collectively holding almost half of these are in Jordan – the rest are living in shelters, or are trying to eke out a living in urban areas like Ankara. In Jordan the poverty rate among Syrian refugees is 93%.
Of Syrian refugees resettled to Europe as of 2017, most are in Germany (530,000). For the rest of Europe, only Sweden (110,000) and Austria (50,000) have received significant numbers of refugees. Only 33,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States – almost none since 2017.
Now Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has invaded Syria to create a “safe zone” in the northern, predominantly Kurdish region of Syria. Turkey already controls territory in Syria (see map above). In addition to driving a wedge between Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria, Erdogan plans to relocate 1 million Syrian refugees into this zone. In essence Erdogan is planning to use 1 million refugees as a human barrier between Syria and Turkey. For this he definitely wins the fascist of the week award.
Of course the only reason people in the United States are paying attention at all is because the runner-up, Donald Trump, pulled U.S. troops out of the area this weekend, essentially giving Erdogan the greenlight to invade. Trump was criticized broadly for this move – including from Republican leaders like Graham and McConnell, who can otherwise be counted on to shine Trump’s sh*tty policies in to red-state shine-ola. Withdrawing from a war zone, however, was one crappy move too far. In response to this rare demonstration of GOP backbone, Trump threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if the invasion “went too far.” Only to backtrack again to say, this is not our fight, we need to stay out of the way. After all the Kurds “didn’t help us with Normandy,” (yes, he really said this). As a result of his discursive barf-fest, Trump will be able to point to at least one Tweet or soundbite suggesting he was on the right side of history no matter how all of this turns out.
Meanwhile, we return to the plight of 3.6 million refugees in Turkey – 1 million of whom may very soon be forced to populate this safe zone. That is, unless Europe continues to criticize Erdogan’s occupation of northern Syria. In this scenario, Erdogan said today he would send them all to Europe. From Reuters:
President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday Ankara will send the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to Europe if European countries label the country’s military incursion in Syria as an occupation.
“We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Erdogan said in speech to lawmakers from his AK Party.
Turkey has played this blackmail game before. Back in 2015 when refugees from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East and Central Asia were making news as they made their way into Europe, Turkey struck a deal with the European Union to allow asylum seekers landing in Greece to be resettled in Turkey. It is a deal similar in tone to deals struck between the U.S. and Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in recent months. Turkey also received 3 billion euros from EU governments and received another 3 billion euros from the European Commission to improve the humanitarian situation of refugees in Turkey. What did this mean for refugees in Turkey and those returned?
The – very – few displaced people in Turkey who are eligible for resettlement and the slow pace of transfers means that, for the vast majority of refugees in Turkey, the deal does little but hamper their options for forward movement.
Some 3.7 million refugees are struggling in Turkey including more than 80% of Syrians, who live below the poverty line. Turkey’s detention infrastructure is growing, and asylum seekers are facing long delays – of several months – in their applications for international protection.
By September 2017, only 5 percent of non-Syrians returned from Greece were able to apply for asylum in Turkey – and just two of them were granted refugee status. By January 2019, more than two-thirds of non-Syrians returned from Greece were deported to their countries of origin, which included fragile states and countries in conflict. One of the biggest receivers of returnees has been Afghanistan, where 343,341 people have been displaced internally due to conflict over the last 12 months.
The truth is the same in 2019 as it was three years ago when the deal was struck: Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, and cannot assure the basic rights of those who are within its territory.
More recently, Turkey has begun expelling Syrian refugees in significant numbers. From Foreign Policy in August of this year:
Once an outspoken activist against the former al Qaeda-affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Hilal now fears he will face retaliation from the militant group since his deportation to a Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria. He condemned the group for changing “the path of the revolution from aiming for a secular democratic state to an Islamic caliphate.”
Until recently, Hisham Moustafa Steif al-Mohammed worked in a garment factory in Istanbul and lived there with his wife and three children, where he was the only breadwinner. The Turkish police detained the 25-year-old one morning in late May while on his way to work because his kimlik was from another state in Turkey. A few weeks later, on June 15, he found himself on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing station heading to Idlib.
Turkish government officials claim that they are only deporting criminals and people who do not have kimlik papers. Hilal and Mohammed were neither. Hilal says he was threatened, harassed, and beaten after being rounded up alongside other Syrian men, all of them under 35 years old, on a bus in Izmir. He also said he was forced to sign deportation papers after being detained arbitrarily for a week. Hilal is now in an area controlled by Turkish-backed opposition forces in northern Syria, where he feels extremely unsafe. “I am not safe here, even in Turkish-controlled areas, and I can’t leave this house out of fear of al-Nusra and other groups,” Hilal said.
Erdogan has been working to create this “safe zone” for a while, supporting Turkish backed opposition groups in Syria for a long time. None of this is thus a surprise (or should be). However, the full scale invasion of Turkish forces will obviously escalate things quickly. And, of course, the invasion of Syria is, predictably, creating more refugees already.
At least 23 fighters with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and eight civilians, two them SDF administrators, have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The SDF has not given a casualty toll, while six fighters with Turkey-backed rebel groups have also been killed.
More than 60,000 people have fled since the offensive began, the Observatory added. The towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya, some 60 km to the east, have been largely deserted as a result of the attack.
So, Erdogan is using the refugee crisis as a political foil to achieve long sought objectives concerning disarmament (if not outright destruction) of Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Trump doesn’t think this is a good idea, but made it all possible (If you can prove Trump can find Syria on an unmarked map of the world, I will give you $100). European leaders are lining up to critique, but it is not clear what they will actually do beyond wringing their hands in front of BBC’s cameras. European leadership has been wholly absent in Syria. And in dealing with refugees, the EU has mostly offshored its obligations and created barriers to entry from Libya to Turkey (much as the U.S. is doing with Mexico). Russia is trying to get Syria and Turkey to the table to talk. They’ve been trying this for a long time, but one suspects mostly to create division in NATO, not out of any concern for the Kurds – whom they’ve also bombed. Netanyahu actually raised human rights concerns yesterday, which, yeah, should be a concern, but coming from him is just verbal graffiti mocking the very concept of human rights.
And so here we are again, on the brink of a regional, if not global war, because of the conflict in Syria. The United Nations Security Council will meet today – to do what exactly is hard to say. Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen are pressing for sanctions against Turkey in the U.S. Senate (war makes strange bedfellows). None of this will make much difference to the 12.6 million already displaced by the war, and any actions will come too late to help the tens of thousands who will become newly displaced in the coming weeks.
On World Refugee Day I wrote a somewhat exasperated post titled, “Where the F*ck are People Supposed to Go.” I still don’t know.