Turkey’s Housing Project in North Syria: A Devastating Gamble

Thursday 12 May 2022

by Ola Rifai

Earlier this month, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a plan to send one million Syrian refugees back to Northern Syria as a part of a ‘voluntary’ return project for Syrians to ‘Safe Zone’. On Tuesday 05/03 Mr. Erdogan appeared on a huge screen in Idlib celebrating the inauguration of a 100.000 briquette houses for Syrian refugees. He assured the crowds, who were waving Turkish and the revolutionary flags, that this “is a very substantial project which Turkey will carry out in 13 different regions including Azez, Jarablus, al Bab, Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain”.

Well, the extent to which this return is ‘voluntary’ and the ‘safe zones’ are safe is very complex. In 2021 Many reports claimed that the Turkish authority deported hundreds of refugees ignoring their legal status. Furthermore, human right activists reported that dozens of Syrians are in detention camps at the Syrian-Turkish border and are due to be sent back to ‘Safe zones’ Northern Syria.

In this light, the 145-km long, 30-KM-deep ‘Safe Zone’ which Mr. Erdogan crafted throughout two military campaigns (Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018) is patrolled by the Assad allied forces, Russian troops, and Turkish backed rebels. Whereas Kurdish troops backed by the Americans are at the other side. Although few confrontations were reported throughout the past four years, this does not indicate peace and can only bring a fragile calm.  Tension might explode and drag all parties in bloody clashes transferring the so-called ‘Safe Zones’ into a ‘Hot Zone’.

Certainly, this Housing Project has been embedded in Erdogan’s agenda since the early stages of the Syrian War. However, his motivations shifted over time according to Turkey’s political priorities. Today there are three realpolitik aims which Mr. Erdogan is pursuing. The first and the most important one is to reduce domestic pressure on his party before the 2023 elections. Some 3.6 million Syrian refugees reside in Turkey and are a main driver of hate speech and the rising of xenophobia in the Turkish domestic theater. According to observers, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) lost all three of Turkey’s major cities in the 2019 Municipal elections mainly because of AK policies vis-à-vis Syrian refugees. Besides, the deteriorating economic situation due to Covid 19 fueled the situation and combined with the refugee crisis would provoke AK supporters against the party.

Second, Turkish officials seek to deter the Kurdish threat by settling more than one million ‘Arabs’ next to Kurdish control territories. Hence, the newcomers will change demography and geography in the interest of Turkish national security.

Lastly, it seems to be such a perfect opportunity for Mr. Erdogan to enhance Turkey’s foothold in the Syrian drama since his Russian ally is focusing on the Ukrainian front and is swamped with a series of international sanctions.

Indeed, attempts by Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees in ‘Safe Zone’ present moral and legal questions. As relocating refugees to dangerous places is neither ethical nor legitimate.  Moreover, aims behind this Housing project would catalyze catastrophic implications for Syria and would prolong the conflict.

Most of the refugees are Arab Sunnis who came from different cities across Syria. Henceforth settling them next to the Kurdish enclave and amidst territory that prior to the war was ethnically mixed would emphasis lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Undoubtedly, such demographic engineering would at some point provoke identity clashes and would indicate significant hurdles to draw a road map to end the war.

Furthermore, Idlib and its suburbs are controlled by Salafi-Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al Sham HTS which enforce a radical agenda. In 2021. HTS established a military recruitment department aiming to recruit fighters and expand its control. In May 2021, Mazhar al Wais HTS official appeared in a video urging Sunni men to join the group,. he says, “O young Sunni Muslims, hasten to join the ranks of the heroes to fulfill your Sharia duty to expel the oppressor and protect the sanctities”.

In this light, refugees who are abandoned, jobless, hopeless, and bitter can be easy victims for jihadist group.  And whether they join HTS or not, refugees will be subjected to a daily process of radicalisation since HTS control the political and socio-economic spheres. (e.g., local councils, schools, markets and even hospitals).

Alas, Syrian refugees seem to have little choices to make as they are held hostages on the political agenda of state and non-state actors who are striving for power on the ground. Moreover, they are at risk of being targeted from the sky as Syrian air is open to the regime and Russian jets.

in fact, Turkey’s plans to build a state-within-a state in the North and settle one million refugees there would play critical roles in further destabilizing Syria and add chaos to an already chaotic situation. Surely, there are no morals in politics, but the risk of abandoning Syrian refugees and sending them to ‘Safe Zone’ should be seen as geopolitical.

In his broadcasted speech, Mr. Erdogan told Syrians “No one would leave his home for no reason; no one would like to walk toward an uncertain future”. Yes, this is very accurate indeed. Many Syrians were forced to leave their homes and are now walking toward a bleak and uncertain future.  However, this misery is an outcome of the manipulation of state and non-state actors and a product of the failure of the International Community in addressing the Syrian Crisis.



pic by AFP