Turkey’s plan to expand a buffer zone inside northern Syria and use it to relocate large numbers of refugees has gained momentum after officials endorsed a military push that analysts from both countries say will force demographic shifts inside Syria.
Though a timeline has not been decided, military and political leaders have confirmed that an extensive operation is being prepared to move Kurdish populations away from Turkey’s southern border and assert Turkish control as deep as 18 miles into northern Syria.
While not explicitly stated, the move involves moving Syrian Arabs into the new zones, in which Turkey will secure economic influence and political approval on the home front ahead of elections next year. Kurdish populations that dominated the 500-mile border are set to lose more sway after being forced from key towns during three Turkish incursions in the past five years.
Plans for a new operation have taken rapid shape in recent weeks against a shifting geopolitical backdrop in Europe, where Sweden and Finland’s request to join Nato has given Turkey the chance to press its own domestic agendas.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flagged the new push into northern Syria on Monday, claiming it would have the twin effect of defanging the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which dominates northeastern Syria, and further weakening the Islamic State terror group. Earlier he had announced that up to 1 million Syrian refugees would be returned from Turkey.
Despite its implications for regional security, the announcement has met a muted response: the US has expressed “concern” but needs Turkish support for the Nordic states’ ambitions to join the alliance.
Local considerations remain paramount for Erdoğan, who has led Turkey for two decades and faces a troubled economy and potentially his toughest re-election challenge yet in 2023. The issue of Syrian refugees on Turkish soil is one domestic issue he could capitalise on, as anti-refugee sentiment runs high and moves to repatriate some long-term Syrian residents winning political favour.
Turkish officials have claimed that up to 500,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria in the past few years. However, that number is hotly contested, with refugee advocates saying 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 return 1 million refugees back to Syria falls squarely into the pre-election momentum and is just an example of how the file of Syrian refugees is instrumentalized at will,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and north Africa. “While refugees have been returning, some forcibly, in past years, were he to put such a plan in action it would be a gross breach of Turkey’s obligations [not to forcibly return refugees]”.
Asli Aydıntaşbaş, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The US sensitivity about this is, I think about the Hasakah region (in northeastern Syria) where US soldiers remain. They wouldn’t want stability shaken there to hurt the fight with Isis.
“The geopolitical climate has become more conducive for Erdoğan to increase his demands. And outlining security concerns like this might result in concessions from the western counterparts, because of the Ukrainian war.
“The Syrians I talk to in Istanbul or other cities, they have been living 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 buffer zones will create a momentum for return.”
Another Turkish analyst, international relations expert Soli Özel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said the chances of a large incursion were low. “I don’t personally think it will be as large an operation as the government says. I don’t see a possibility of direct conflict between Turkish forces and the YPG (the main Kurdish group in northeastern Syria).
“For the last 12 years, Turkey has had foreign policy problems and it might be that these kinds of operations would be used as a political capital. In the Turkish press the details we see seems like a government wishlist, but I don’t personally think it will be in that scale.”
Samah Hadid, head of Middle East advocacy at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “The fact remains that Syrian refugees still need protection and asylum. No government should be forcibly returning and pushing them into direct risk and insecurity. Vulnerable displaced Syrians should not be used as pawns in geopolitics.”
Additional reporting by Gokce Saracoglu