Turkey’s plan to return refugees to Syria
Turkey is drafting plans to return one million Syrian refugees to northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, under plans to build housing and provide services in regions held by Turkish-backed forces in the country.
Erdogan made the remarks in a video message on Tuesday as Ankara delivered more briquette houses to Syrians living in rebel-held Idlib.
The Turkish government, with the help of the local and international NGOs, aims to build 100,000 such houses to shelter Syrians fleeing the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Erdogan said in his remarks that half a million Syrians have settled back in parts of Turkish-controlled Syria.
“We are backing up our strategy with projects to encourage the returns,” he said. “We are preparing a project to realise our one million Syrian brothers’ return.”
Erdogan added that Ankara will implement the project with the local assemblies in 13 regions, including Azaz, Al Bab and Tal Abyad. “All infrastructure projects, from housing to hospitals, everything regarding daily life will be in this project,” he said.
Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and 1.7 million other foreign nationals. It is also in the grips of a currency crisis.
Last summer saw a spate of communal violence in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara as Syrian businesses and refugees were attacked.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has spearheaded the increasingly hostile anti-Syrian rhetoric. Despite his left-liberal political stance, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has promised to send Syrians back to their country if elected president in 2023.
Umit Ozdag, a right-wing politician and the chairman of the Victory Party, has created a media buzz in recent months by promising to send millions of Syrian, Afghans and Pakistanis back to their countries.
Erdogan, who just a few weeks ago declared that he would never send Syrians back, now talks about their “honourable” return, with Turkey approaching presidential elections next year.
The president reiterated that of the 1 million Iraqis that fled to Turkey when the Gulf war started, almost all returned following the war and said that Ankara, within this scope, is continuing efforts to stabilize northern Syria while building briquette houses.
The country currently hosts some 4 million refugees from the 11-year Syrian civil war.
Erdogan promises not to force them out
After initial concerns that Erdogan would effectively forcibly push Syrian refugees out of Turkey against their will, the Turkish president has assured the public that this would not be the case.
Turkey will continue to look after “our Syrian brothers,” who have fled war and sought refuge in the country, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday.
“Syrians can return to their homeland whenever they want, but we will never force them out of these lands,” Erdogan told an event to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSIAD) in Istanbul.
“Our door is open to them, we will continue to host them. We will not throw them into the hands and laps of murderers.”
Turkish officials in mid-April banned Syrian refugees from temporarily visiting Syria to see their families for the Eid al-Fitr holiday in early May, which marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting later on Monday, Erdoğan said Turkey will build 200,000 homes in northern Syria for some one-fourth of the refugees to resettle voluntarily.
“With financing from international aid groups, we’ve been working on a project to construct 200,000 homes at 13 different locations in Syria to relocate 1 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, including schools and hospitals,” he noted.
He stressed that there should be no doubt that the number of Syrians will fall to reasonable numbers as long as they are provided the necessary opportunities for voluntary returns.
Saying that all foreigners in Turkey are subject to certain rules on living and working regardless of their countries of origin, Erdoğan stated that those who do not comply with these rules are being deported.
“The number of Syrians deported in this way has exceeded 20,000, and the number of other nationalities is over 21,000,” he added.
The main goal of a significant percentage of irregular migrants coming to Turkey is actually to get to Europe, he noted.
Could normalization with Syria facilitate this process?
Parallel to these developments, Turkey has quietly been taking steps towards possible normalization of ties with the Syrian Assad regime. In fact, it has been argued that Turkey’s sudden openness to normalization in recent months has been stimulated by its intent to return Syrian refugees to their homeland, something that despite Turkey’s strong influence in Northern Syria, would be a hard feat without the cooperation of the Damascus regime.
Turkey has committed itself to a more pragmatic foreign policy, working to mend fences with key regional players such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.
The Emiratis have announced billions of US dollars in investments in Turkey that are crucial to any economic recovery. Similar rumours of a warming in Saudi-Turkish relations – and subsequent economic and defence deals – appear imminent.
Still, such dealings almost always have strings attached. Ankara has already worked to temper Muslim Brotherhood broadcasting in Istanbul, suggesting similar pressure could come from Abu Dhabi on the Syria file.
Indeed, as Turkey improves relations with Arab states, the pressure to be more amenable to Abu Dhabi’s interests, including wider acceptance of Assad’s ‘legitimacy’, will increase.
Although much remains to be seen with respect to Turkish elections and regional shifts towards pragmatic relationships following a tumultuous decade, Ankara-Damascus relations will remain frosty regardless of any potential renormalisation.
The countries have effectively been at war for 11 years, suggesting substantial diplomatic engagement is needed for the two states to restore friendly ties within the context of the Adana Agreement, which prevented a war between them in the late 1990s.
This is particularly true if Erdogan remains in power, as the Turkish leader has traded rhetorical bombshells with Assad since 2011.
Although Turkey’s plan to send Syrian’s back home may partially succeed with the right initiatives and infrastructure projects. The bulk will likely remain in Turkey, and the wider problem of the continuous Syrian refugee flow to Turkey will continue as long as the Syrian regime and opposition forces (and Turkey) are at loggerheads and instability in Syria continues.