Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of his intention to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in the “safe zone” under discussion between Turkey and the US. The zone is set to run several kilometres deep into Syria’s side of the border to the east of the Euphrates.
It was not the first time that Mr Erdogan had announced such resettlement plans. Although the US and Europe have been largely silent about the matter, they should be very concerned. Mr Erdogan has said that he wants either additional European finance to continue hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey or backing for his safe zone resettlement plan, else he will “open the gates” for refugees to enter Europe.
The presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey is becoming a political liability for Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey is in the midst of its most serious economic crisis in decades and across the country there is widespread resentment towards Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees, even resulting in outbreaks of violence.
The inability of the Astana talks and the all-but-defunct Geneva process to find a solution to the situation in Idlib, as evidenced during last week’s summit in Ankara, is also adding fuel to the fire. A continued assault on Idlib, plus the increasingly hostile environment in Turkey, has contributed to a marked increase in refugees willing to take the treacherous voyage across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and then elsewhere in Europe.
Even though the last thing Europe wants is another refugee crisis, Mr Erdogan’s idea of settling millions of refugees in the so-called safe zone should ring alarm bells.
The plan cannot be brushed aside as mere bluster. There is already a precedent. In recent weeks there were credible reports of hundreds of Syrians being rounded up and taken on a 1,000-mile bus ride from Istanbul back to Syria. It is estimated that Turkey has resettled more than 300,000 Syrian refugees in Afrin and other parts of Syria captured from the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units, or YPG, by Turkish-backed forces after their 2016 intervention.
Make no mistake: Mr Erdogan’s resettlement plan is not a humanitarian effort to solve a refugee crisis. It is not only an attempt to offload refugees from Turkey but designed to radically alter the Kurdish nature of that part of Syria. Ankara thinks this will help its battle against the YPG, which Turkey claims is the Syrian offshoot of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) it deems a terrorist organisation and has been fighting since the 1980s.
Tampering with the delicate ethnic demographic balance of Kurdish regions of Syria harkens back to the dark days of Baathist rule. During the 1960s and 1970s, the regime instigated a policy of resettling Arabs to Kurdish areas in the north, especially in zones close to the Turkish border east of the Euphrates. Many Kurds were deprived of citizenship and others were deemed “unregistered persons”. This denied them the right to own property and many thousands were forcibly displaced. However, far from leading to stability, such policies only led to generations of resentment and anger. It was also unsuccessful and Kurdish identity endured.
Although on a completely different level of violence and intensity, the ethnic cleansing that took place across the Turkish border in Iraq should never be forgotten. Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages between 1975 and 1989, especially during the height of the genocidal Al Anfal campaign, and had a policy of settling Arabs in areas formerly inhabited by Kurds, an attempt to eradicate Kurdish identity.
Turkey itself has attempted to alter the demographic balance of its Kurdish regions. During the 1920s and 1930s, authorities tried to “Turkify” the south-east of the country by sending Turks to the region to settle. During the 1990s, during the height of the war with the PKK, many thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed, which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Kurds. Yet still the conflict continues.
If anything, history teaches us that tampering with the demographics of a given area only leads to more violence and untold suffering. It also doesn't work.
As a partner in building the “safe zone”, Washington needs to be clear that it will not be part of any policy of demographic tampering. Brussels should also reject the plan out of hand. The matter should also not be deflected to either the Geneva process or Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, as both have been sidelined by the regional actors at play in Syria’s war.
As Mr Erdogan has linked his resettlement ideas with the potential for millions of refugees to enter Europe, Brussels and European capitals need to make it clear that they will not tolerate any attempt to alter the demographic balance of the region. If not, it would be an embarrassment to the founding principle of the EU’s foreign policy to “resolve conflicts and foster international understanding” and serve as yet another example of European inactivity to do the right thing, even on its own doorstep.
Dr Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London.