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Electoral Considerations: Erdogan’s Project to Repatriate a Million Refugees to Syria

The Syrian refugees’ crisis has recently regained center stage in Turkish domestic politics, following the Turkish President’s announcement of a project to repatriate one million Syrian refugees to Syria. 

During the inauguration and handover of a new cinder block homes in Idlib, northwest Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his government was drawing up a project that would allow the voluntary return of one million Syrian refugees home. Erdogan pointed out that the project will be implemented with the support of Turkish and international civil organizations in 13 different regions, including A’zaz, Jarabulus, Tell Abyad, and Ras Al-Ayn. 

The project, as per Erdogan’s statement, will provide the refugees with all the needs of daily life and the necessary infrastructure and the Turkish government will make significant efforts to prepare the ground for the refugees’ return. According to studies carried out by institutions that the Turkish president did not disclose, the number of Syrian refugees willing to return home is over one million.

Turkey’s Initial Announcement of the Repatriation of Syrian Refugees

Arguably, Turkey’s discussion of the repatriation of refugees to Syria was primarily associated with Turkey’s desire to establish a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. During the Turkish President’s visit to Washington in 2013, Ankara made it clear that establishing this zone aims at protecting civilians fleeing the Syrian conflict, providing a safe haven for them through a security rather than a buffer zone, protecting Turkey’s borders from security threats, and clearing the area from the People’s Protection Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces. In 2014, Turkey started threatening it would establish the area unilaterally if Washington did not help.

Turkey brought the safe zone topic again to the fore after the United States called, in January 2019, for establishing a “safe zone” that is over 30-km wide in Syria along the Turkish border, yet without making clear who would establish that zone. This announcement engendered Turkish enthusiasm for the establishment of that zone, after conferring with the involved stakeholders, including the guarantor countries of the Astana. According to the Turkish Anadolu Agency, “the safe zone will include cities and towns of three governorates, namely Aleppo, Raqqa, and Al-Hasakah, extending 460 km along the Turkish-Syrian border at a depth of 20 miles (32 km).” The safe zone will be located north of the line between the villages of Sarrin in Aleppo and Ayn Issa in Raqqa and will extend from the city of Qamishli in the west to Tell Abyad and Ayn Al-Arab in the east. In his statement at the United Nations General Assembly meeting of September 2019, Erdogan indicated that the 480-km safe zone will help resettle between 1-2 million Syrian citizens in the first stage, and if the depth of this zone is extended to Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor line, 3 million refugees can be resettled. According to the Turkish NTV channel, 1 million Syrian refugees are expected to be resettled in the first phase across 200,000 houses, and the zone will be provided with health, educational, and religious services and industrial complexes will be established, with a total project cost of €23.5 billion.

On 13 October 2019, Turkey conducted its third military operation Peace Spring in Syria, whose main objective was creating a “safe zone”. As such, the Peace Spring operations area has acceded to the Operation Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations areas, and the area extending from Ras Al-Ain to Tell Abyad and from Jarabulus to Afrin became under the control of Turkey and pro-Turkey factions. According to the Turkish regime, these areas have become safe and can receive refugees returning to Syria, particularly after Turkey has implemented a series of civil, health, and economic projects in them.

Turkey’s calls for creating a safe zone in Syria were accompanied by domestic discourse and internal procedures aimed at responding to the popular pressure rejecting the continuation of the open-door policy towards refugees. In one of his statements prior to the municipal elections in Turkey in 2019, the Turkish president said, “We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their land, to their homes. We aren’t in a position to keep 3.5 million people here forever.” This change in the Turkish rhetoric was accompanied by a tightening of procedures, which included closure of many refugee camps, strictness in granting work permits and licenses for commercial activities, and preventing refugees from moving across provinces without obtaining a security travel permit, let alone what the human rights reports at that time revealed of Turkey’s forced displacement of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The Context of the Refugees’ Return Project

The “Voluntary Return” project was paved the way for in the press through a series of articles published in several Turkish newspapers, talking about the Turkish government’s plans to repatriate Syrian refugees home. On 25 April 2022, a report published in the Hürriyet newspaper touched on the projects implemented by the Turkish government in the zone areas to encourage the return of refugees, including creating about 50,000 jobs, providing fertilizers and seeds for farmers, establishing local councils as well as security and judicial institutions, and engaging in improving the infrastructure and building homes, schools, hospitals, and health centers.

Similarly, an article published in the Turkish newspaper highlighted the government’s plan to return 1.5 Syrian refugees to their country within 15-20 months by making the Turkish military operations’ areas suitable for their return.

Besides press reports, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pointed out, in his interview with CNN Turkey in April 2022, the importance of the safe and voluntary return of refugees.

The domestic context of Turkey’s plan to repatriate refugees shouldn’t be overlooked. Erdogan’s announcement of the project came at a time of growing Turkish public opinion rejection of refugees in general and Syrian refugees in particular, believing that the State funds should be spent on Turkish citizens rather than being directed to serve Syrians. This gave rise to violence against Syrian refugees and occasional protests that called for expulsion of Syrians from Turkey.   

These calls from the public opinion reflected on the Turkish opposition rhetoric, to the extent that “returning Syrians to their home” came to be among the top topics in their electoral programs, in preparation for the 2023 elections.

These calls had also an impact on the government response as has been evidenced by the constrictive measures taken against refugees, the latest of which was preventing Syrian refugees from traveling from Turkey to northern Syria in Eid Al-Fitr, due to criticisms made by the opposition that if the Syrians are capable of celebrating the Eid in Syria, then they can permanently reside there. Additionally, earlier in February 2022 and after pressure from the opposition, the Turkish government introduced the 25 percent rule which stipulates that the non-Turkish population settled in any Turkish neighborhood must not exceed 25 percent of the overall population. Accordingly, the Turkish authorities resettled Syrians in areas where foreign nationals don’t exceed this percentage and closed 16 provinces to new arrivals of refugees and foreign immigrants. There is also talk of other harassment against Syrians, including restrictions on their movement within Turkish provinces and the immediate deportation of any refugee who makes trouble or commits a violation.

Complexities of Implementing the Refugee Return Project 

While Turkey’s project seems serious this time, particularly it came associated with reports detailing on the implementation of the project and the Turkish government’s initiation of studies with the United Nations to participate in the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, there are several complexities that should be considered first.

A look at the safe zones that Turkey has established in northern Syria would reveal the absence of security in these areas. Apart from the clashes and tensions that break out between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey or pro-Turkey factions, there are also fights within the ranks of the pro-Turkey factions, who are entrusted with maintaining security in those areas. Moreover, these areas are experiencing explosions, assassinations, and insecurity, much less the economic and service difficulties that are facing the population living there. Further, the Idlib region, where Turkey is currently building cinder block homes, is still one of the hot spots in Syria, particularly with the visibility of Tahrir Al-Sham organization, which Russia considers a terrorist organization that must be dismantled and which is one of the reasons that drive the continued Russian bombing of several sites in Idlib.  

Along with the security dimension, the high density of population in this area represents another problem where about 4 million Syrians are already facing difficult living conditions due to the turbulent security environment and the scarcity of economic projects that guarantee them an acceptable standard of living, which makes it of no sense that the area receive an additional million people.

Another problem that Syrian human rights activists raise relates to the idea of “voluntarism” in itself. Several opinion polls conducted by Turkish research institutions indicate that the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey reject repatriation, believing that Syria is not likely to return to normal in a short time and there is a high potential of the outbreak of a new conflict. Therefore, amid the continued domestic pressure on the Turkish government, Syrians fear that the “voluntary return” turns into a “forced return”, either through deportation or imposing further restricting on them within Turkish provinces, which may push many of them to illegal immigration to other European countries or travel to other countries that still welcome Syrian refugees. On another side, the voluntary return project may bring about demographic change in Syria. While a return of refugees generally means the refugees’ return to their homes and towns of origin, the Turkish project identifies only 13 areas in northwest Syria in which refugees can reside, which may not necessarily be their home regions.

On the other hand, there does not seem to be an international agreement on the refugee return. For instance, the head of Delegation of the European Union to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, indicated that “conditions in Syria don’t help for a large-scale return of Syrian refugees”. Additionally, Russia isn’t currently likely to accept the Turkish plan as it would mean the slipping out of the Syrian regime’s control over those areas.  

And when it comes to the international support, it is not only the political support that is required as Turkey aspires to get the financial support of international entities to implement the project. However, international actors don’t seem to have consensus on the refugee return. During the Sixth Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region” held on 10 May 2022, international donors pledged to provide $6.7 billion to Syria by 2023, an amount that is less than the amount set by the United Nations ($10.5 billion) to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Overall, these pledges are non-binding and therefore some of them may not be fulfilled.

There is another complexity relating to the possible upcoming extension of the UN resolution that allows for the passage of humanitarian aid through Bab Al-Hawa crossing (the only crossing point that is still allows for the delivery of the UN humanitarian aid to Syrian territories through Turkey particularly those that aren’t under the control of the Syrian regime). The recent Russian statements reveal that Russia will most likely use the veto in July 2022 against extension of the UN resolution to deliver humanitarian aid through Bab Al-Hawa crossing, on the grounds that this mechanism is no longer needed and that the aid should pass through the Syrian government. As such, given the continued Russian-Western tensions against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, the Security Council is less likely to be capable of passing an extension of the resolution, which would make regions of northern Syria vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis. However, the non-extension may be a favorable opportunity for Turkey.

Concerns about the closure of Bab Al-Hawa crossing may consolidate the Turkish vision of providing a safe zone through which aid can be easily delivered to the population settled in those areas, which would alleviate the humanitarian crisis in that area and prevent the influx of more Syrian refugees to Turkey and Europe.

Another opportunity that would promote Turkey’s refugee return project is the legislative decree issued by Syrian President on 30 April 2022 awarding  amnesty to all those accused of committing acts of terrorism prior to 30 April 2022, excluding crimes that led to death of a human being. 

This decree was welcomed in international circles. The UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, stated that the decree will give rise to the release of thousands of prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, noting that amnesty has potential and that they are looking forward to seeing how it [the decree] develops. In Turkey, the head of the Turkish nationalist party Devlet Bahçeli indicated during his meeting with the parliamentary group of his party on 10 May that this decision is an important development that facilitates the return of refugees.

In short, Turkey’s official adoption of the return of refugees is not likely to abate during the coming period, particularly given the serious public interest it gains. Arguably, resolving the refugee crisis will be a determining factor in winning the 2023 elections and perhaps this is why the Turkish regime is unlikely to turn a blind eye to it.

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