Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a regular blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS features this series in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
Since President Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, the situation of Syrian refugees and displaced persons has rapidly deteriorated. The United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia seem to be acting for geopolitical gain with no regard for the lives of the refugees.
President Recep Erdogan of Turkey exploited the US withdrawal to launch a military offensive, complete with air attacks, into Kurdish-held northeastern Syria. This was a first step – after convincing Trump to pull out US troops – in the implementation of Erdogan’s plan to resettle millions of refugees to northern Syria. The Turkish offensive prompted condemnation from its western allies, including the United States, but this did nothing to help local residents and previously displaced person, thousands of whom began to flee the area. As the Turkish military campaign advanced over nine days, Kurdish health officials reported that 218 civilians, including 8 children, had been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced.
Late last week, the United States and Turkey announced an agreement, leading to a short-term cease-fire, which would allow Turkey to establish a “safe zone” in the contested area. Shortly after US Vice-President Mike Pence announced this deal, the commander of the Kurdish forces in the area, General Mazloum Abdi, accepted the ceasefire, but described it as limited to the areas that Turkey controlled.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East, living mainly in four nations: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The Syrian Kurdish population is among the smallest, with roughly 1.7 million people concentrated in northern Syria. Since the Syrian uprising began, the Kurds have found themselves encircled by the violence emanating from Syrian regime and from various radical groups. In response, the Kurds formed militias to defend their towns and villages. They also entered into a joint effort with the United States to fight ISIS. Despite the loss of vast amounts of territory, ISIS remains a resilient movement and has been revitalized by the chaotic US troop withdrawal and the Turkish offensive.
Turkey has long feared that Kurdish movements in northern Syria could lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state along the Turkish border and that such an entity could, in turn, encourage and enable some 20 million “Turkish Kurds” to pursue independence as well.
Now Turkey has decided to move ahead with a plan to resettle a million refugees in northern Syria. Turkey hopes that these steps will serve its interests in three ways. First, they will push the Kurds away from Turkey’s border and diminish any prospects for an independent Kurdish state. Second, they will allow Turkey to rid itself of Syrian refugees, placing them in a line of defense across the border against the Kurds. Third, the resettlement will change the ethnic makeup of northeast Syria, by putting refugees from the Arabic ethnic group there.
The refugees find themselves trapped in the middle of these political developments. In a prior column, I described the intense pressure Turkey has levied against Syrian refugees to return to unsafe conditions, where many have already been tortured and killed. The misnamed Turkish “safe zone” continues this process.
Serdar Muhammed, a 30-year-old Syrian Kurd, sees the “safe zone” as a disastrous development. Like many other Syrians, he believes this plan will escalate tensions among Syrians, and that it will further throw Syrian refugees into Turkey’s political struggle.
Abu Mahmoud, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee lives in Istanbul, under immense pressure from Turkish authorities, and fears involuntary repatriation. As a result, he has closed his business and gone underground.
“It is not a matter of choice,” he says. “It was forced upon us, and racism is increasing as the government does nothing to stop it. They are promoting propaganda against us.”
Accelerating the repatriation of refugees before conditions allow for their safe and sustainable return will exacerbate the already-deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, and put pressure on the limited services and fragile governance in the areas to which refugees are being forced to return.
Muhammed Mulla, age 23, studied English literature at Damascus University. He had no other choice but to leave Syria for Turkey. Syrian security forces pursued him due to his participation in the peaceful protest movement that took place in eastern Damascus in 2012. He describes his current situation as follows: “I cannot go back, and I cannot stay here, no way out. Turkey wants us to become a tool for their political agenda, the world is watching us and does nothing.”
October 22, 2019