By Meghan Bodette
Turkey is seeking to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in occupied areas of North and East Syria — a plan that has received indications of international support despite presenting several humanitarian and international legal problems. Rather than remain complicit in these violations, the international community should support the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in their efforts to provide for refugees and IDPs, build stability and security in Syria, and seek a political settlement to the conflict that would allow Syrians to return home with dignity.
First, the Turkish military presence in North and East Syria is an illegal occupation of the territory of a sovereign state, made possible through an illegal act of aggression. Though Turkish authorities claimed to be exercising their right to self defense, a protected right under Article 51 of the UN Charter, this defense does not stand up to the facts on the ground. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had not attacked Turkey. The SDF did not pose any kind of imminent threat at the time of the invasion. In fact, the SDF was actively working with Turkish authorities on an internationally-brokered “safe zone” deal, going so far as to destroy fortifications along the border as a sign of goodwill. Turkey had no right to attack Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tel Abyad), and their continued presence there against the will of both the SDF and the Syrian government is illegitimate.
Developments in other Turkish-occupied areas of Syria suggest that Turkey is attempting to incorporate these regions into Turkish economic and political structures. The Turkish language is used as an official language on public signage, Turkish authorities approve candidates for local governance structures, and public services are managed by Turkey. Syrian citizens have even been arrested and tried for violating Turkish law for activities undertaken on Syrian territory. This suggests a de facto attempt to annex these areas, rather than simply administer them for Syrians.
Second, Turkey is undertaking a policy of forced demographic change in occupied areas that amounts to both ethnic cleansing and violations of the principle of non-refoulement. Prior to the invasion and occupation of Afrin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the goal of the operation was to “return” the region to its “original owners.” He used false demographic statistics to suggest that the historically Kurdish region was actually majority-Arab and claim that Arab refugees from other Syrian cities should be resettled there. This shows a clear intent to both remove Kurds from Afrin by force and to send Syrians back to a war zone far from their original homes.
The track record of Turkish forces and their extremist proxies shows that this intent has been put into practice. Kurds once made up about 90 percent of Afrin’s population; today they make up about 20 percent. Statistics show that Afrin has seen higher rates of displacement and lower rates of return compared to other regions in Northwestern Syria, suggesting that the individuals moving into Afrin are not those who previously lived there. Militia members have been seen targeting cultural and religious sites belonging to Kurds, Alevis Yezidis. In Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad, local Kurds, Yezidis, Assyrians, and Armenians have been targeted by Turkish-backed militias, while Sunni Arabs were allowed to return to their homes and businesses.
Turkey is removing the people of one region to replace them with Syrians who are not from that region at all. While these vulnerable minorities are being forced from their ancestral homes, the refugees moved to these areas are often sent there under coercion as well. International law prohibits the forcible return of refugees to their country while that country is still considered unsafe. These Syrians being sent to Afrin, Sere Kaniye, and Gire Spi are often from other regions controlled by Turkey, like Idlib — regions where Turkey has not been able to protect civilian populations. Crime, bad governance, and ongoing conflict in Turkish-occupied areas do not provide a suitable environment for Syrians to rebuild their lives. Nor is creating refugees and IDPs in order to transfer a new group of refugees to their territory a morally or legally acceptable practice.
Turkey’s policies in North and East Syria amount to little more than committing one violation of international law in order to enable another one. International support for such a project would therefore require complicity in both of these crimes. European authorities reportedly refused an earlier Turkish request for funding for resettlement in Afrin on these grounds in 2018.
Rather than fund atrocities for the sake of convenience, the international community should engage with the AANES to both support the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in their region and seek broader political solutions towards an end to the conflict. The AANES is already managing multiple refugee and IDP camps — from those in Shehba, where the displaced people of Afrin have lived for nearly two years, to a camp for Yezidis displaced from Sinjar in 2014. Recently, even displaced families from Idlib have arrived in the region, after General Mazlum Kobane called on people there to take refuge in SDF-held areas.
Unlike Turkey, which uses refugees to threaten Europe, change demographics, and prolong conflict in Syria, the AANES is committed to accommodating victims of war regardless of ethnicity or religion, and ensuring that all Syrians can one day return to their homes in a peaceful and democratic country. They have also undertaken their humanitarian efforts with far fewer resources than Turkey has. After recent cuts to UN aid for the region, supporting all of these populations while taking on other projects like reconstruction will become even more difficult for the AANES and the SDF.
The international community should increase humanitarian support for the region, and support their position in international negotiations on the future of the conflict. A stable, peaceful, and democratic Syria where all Syrians are welcomed is the only future that will ensure that millions of displaced people can return to their homes. The AANES provides the best model for such a future — and is willing to negotiate with all sides of the conflict to achieve it. Supporting this goal is the best way to support Syrians and end the nearly decade-long war that has devastated their country. Support for Turkey’s forced demographic change will only ensure that war, displacement, and human suffering continue.