Turkey has begun shuttling Syrian refugees across the border into northeastern Syria despite dangerous security conditions in the border towns—the first sign Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving forward with his plan to resettle some 3 million Syrians living in Turkey into 20 miles of formerly Kurdish-held territory.
Local media reports and information provided to Foreign Policy by the northeastern Syria-based Rojava Information Center show that small numbers of Syrian refugees are now trickling across the border into northeastern Syria just two months after Erdogan and his proxy forces invaded the region. The violent military operation has killed hundreds of Kurdish fighters and civilians and displaced 200,000 people.
While the onslaught has largely halted since Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an October cease-fire agreement, residents of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, the Syrian towns that mark the western and eastern borders of Turkish-occupied territory, live in daily fear of assault, terrorism, and looting. The security conditions on the ground raise concerns about the safety of those who return and call into question whether some of these civilians are being forcibly resettled.
Continued reports of atrocities by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army that now controls the area also raise fears that Turkish proxies are committing a form of ethnic cleansing by relocating people of Arab descent into the region while preventing the Kurdish population from returning. Information provided to Foreign Policy indicates that the people now being resettled in the region are largely the families of Turkish-backed fighters who are originally from elsewhere in Syria and are primarily Arab and Turkmen.
Experts and U.S. officials worry that resettling large numbers of refugees who are not originally from northeastern Syria will upset the delicate ethnic balance of the region. Before the Turkish incursion, the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain was previously controlled by the Syrian Kurds, and the population was primarily Kurdish and Arab.
“Turkey’s willingness to take so many refugees from Syria and to try and allow them to stay in Turkey and to support them was admirable,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in an interview with a handful of reporters at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California. “But now for Turkey to say they want to try to relocate 2 to 3 million refugees … we should try to do everything we can in the United States to keep that from happening because of the humanitarian concerns, because of the ongoing conflict in the region.”
The first group of roughly 70 Syrian refugees crossed the border from Turkey into Ras al-Ain on Nov. 22, according to Turkish media reports. Two days later, on Nov. 24, three convoys carrying 600 families were transported from Turkey to Tal Abyad, according to information provided to Foreign Policy by the Rojava Information Center.
Turkey says the convoy was made up of people from the Kurdish-held region, but locals say the refugees are from elsewhere in Syria—Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and further afield areas such as Idlib, Ghouta, Homs, and even Iraq, said Thomas McClure, a researcher with the group. The majority are likely the families of Turkish-backed fighters, he said, many of whom are defectors from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and have ties to extremist groups such as al Qaeda.
The first lot of refugees was bussed through Turkey from Turkish-held territory in Jarablous, Syria, where there are registration offices open for fighters who want to move their families to Tal Abyad, McClure said.
The border crossing between Turkey and Tal Abyad opened for the first time in five years on Nov. 26, according to McClure, clearing the way for large numbers of Syrians to cross back into Syria. The border was last open when the Islamic State militants controlled Tal Abyad, and it closed when the Kurdish-lead Syrian Democratic Forces took over the area.
The crossing is now being used to ferry Turkish-backed fighters and their families into northeastern Syria and to ferry out looted goods, particularly diesel and grain but also cars, hardware, and machinery, McClure said.
Across the region now controlled by Turkey, human rights groups report that soldiers from the Syrian National Army frequently carry out widespread lootings and summary executions, and soldiers are living unlawfully in residents’ homes. Meanwhile, government services have deteriorated, and arbitrary arrests and car bombings are commonplace.
While U.S. officials say they are not aware of a large-scale forced resettlement into formerly Kurdish-held territory, Amnesty International in October published a damning report accusing Turkey of forcibly deporting hundreds of refugees to Idlib province, an active war zone in northwestern Syria, under the guise of voluntary returns.
“At present, all deportations to Syria are illegal, because of the nature and severity of the human rights risks there, and people who have been returned have indeed been directly exposed to such dangers,” according to the report.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the treatment of civilians displaced by the military offensive and called on all parties “to facilitate immediate and safe return of displaced civilians who wish to go back to their homes, in accordance with international humanitarian principles.”
Due to the conditions on the ground, it is difficult to get accurate information about the people who have returned, McClure said. Conflicting information is rampant: While human rights watch groups point to degraded security conditions, the Syrian National Army insists that life is returning to normal. According to the United Nations, roughly 120,000 of the 200,000 people displaced by the Turkish operation have returned to their homes, but local reports indicate the number could be far smaller.
Adding to the confusion is that the United Nations has reportedly lost much of its access to on-the-ground information due the conflict and the subsequent flight of international nongovernmental organizations, which it previously relied on for monitoring.
There are also reports that former Islamic State members are living in the region. McClure’s team is working to verify information from a dossier of 70 named individuals provided by the local press.
A State Department official said while the United States has seen a “small number of returns,” the department is not aware of “any significant or coordinated movement of refugees from Turkey to northeast Syria.” The official called on Ankara to work with the U.N. to ensure that refugees return in a “voluntary, safe and dignified manner.”
“The United States does not support forced or coerced relocations of refugees or IDPs to northeast Syria,” the official said. “We are aware that Turkey is engaging with the UNHCR on this matter, and expect Turkey to honor its stated commitment to ensuring any refugees returns are done in accordance with the standards adhered to by UNHCR.”
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