Turkey’s plan to expand a buffer zone in northern Syria and use it to move large numbers of refugees gained momentum after authorities approved a military push that analysts say two countries, will force demographic changes inside Syria.
Although a timetable has not been decided, military and political leaders have confirmed that a large operation is being prepared to remove Kurdish populations from Turkey’s southern border and assert Turkish control until 18 miles in northern Syria.
Although not explicitly stated, the move involves the relocation of Syrian Arabs to the new areas, in which Turkey will gain economic influence and political approval on the home front ahead of next year’s elections. The Kurdish populations who dominated the 500-mile border are set to lose more influence after being forced out of key towns in three Turkish incursions in the past five years.
Plans for a new operation have rapidly taken shape in recent weeks in a changing geopolitical context in Europe, where Sweden’s and Finland’s application for NATO membership has given Turkey the opportunity to advance its own national agendas.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled the new push in northern Syria on Monday, saying it would have the double effect of dismantling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which dominates northeast Syria, and further weaken the Islamic State terrorist group. Earlier, he announced that up to 1 million Syrian refugees would be returned from Turkey.
Despite its implications for regional security, the announcement was met with a mixed response: the United States expressed “concern” but needs Turkish support for the Nordic states’ ambitions to join the alliance.
Local considerations remain paramount for Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for two decades and faces a struggling economy and potentially his toughest re-election challenge yet in 2023. The issue of Syrian refugees on Turkish soil is a domestic issue he could capitalize on, such as anti-refugee sentiment is high and is working to repatriate some long-time Syrian residents who are gaining political favor.
Turkish officials have claimed that up to 500,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria in recent years. However, that number is hotly disputed, with refugee advocates claiming the real figure is close to 80,000 and claiming that many have not returned of their own free will.
“Erdoğan’s statement that he plans to send 1 million refugees back to Syria is fully in line with the pre-election momentum and is just one example of how the Syrian refugee file is being instrumentalized at will,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “While refugees have returned, some forcibly, in recent years, if he put such a plan into action, it would be a flagrant violation of Turkey’s obligations. [not to forcibly return refugees]”.
Asli Aydıntaşbaş, senior researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The American sensitivity on this is, I think of the Hasakah region (in northeast Syria) where there are American soldiers. They wouldn’t want the stability shaken there to harm the fight with Isis.
“The geopolitical climate has become more conducive for Erdoğan to increase his demands. And describing security issues like this could lead to concessions from Western counterparts, because of the Ukrainian war.
“The Syrians I talk to in Istanbul or other cities live here with their families, their livelihood is here and they don’t want to go back to Syria. I don’t see how clearing more buffers will create any return momentum.
Another Turkish analyst, international relations expert Soli Özel of Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the chances of a big incursion were low. “Personally, I don’t think it will be as big an operation as the government says. I don’t see the possibility of a direct conflict between Turkish forces and the YPG (the main Kurdish group in northeast Syria).
“For the past 12 years, Turkey has had foreign policy problems and it could be that these kinds of operations are used as political capital. In the Turkish press, the details we see sound like a government wish list, but I personally don’t think it will be on that scale.
Samah Hadid, Middle East Advocacy Officer at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “The fact remains that Syrian refugees are still in need of protection and asylum. No government should forcibly dismiss them and push them into direct risk and insecurity. Vulnerable displaced Syrians should not be used as pawns in geopolitics.
Additional reporting by Gokce Saracoglu