From frying pan to fire for Idlib’s displaced

A humanitarian horror story has been developing in Syria’s Idlib province, as freezing temperatures, a walled off Turkish border and a shortage of aid have left some 900,000 people displaced by the Russia-backed Syrian offensive squeezed into a shrinking space and struggling to survive. 

The largest mass exodus of the nine-year Syrian war is likely to end in one of two ways: mass slaughter and death at the hands of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops, or another wave of refugees flooding into Turkey. “Either they kill us all, or we enter Turkey,” is how displaced Idlib father Abu Jabber described it last week. 

Assuming Turkey, Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the international community find a way to avoid the former, it would be wise to consider how the latter might proceed. The first step is keeping them alive, as hundreds of Idlib’s displaced have already died this year and those left are in desperate need of food, blankets, and medical supplies. 

And it is not just the 900,000 displaced since December. Syria’s last rebel-held province has emerged as a refuge for displaced from all over the country, such as those fleeing atrocities in Homs, Ghouta, and Aleppo. 

In the past year, nearly two million people have been displaced in Idlib and neighbouring areas, according to Syria’s Response Coordination Group, while the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of them are women and children. “They have created a kill box in Idlib,” a regional diplomat told the Guardian newspaper. 

The international community has worked to address the humanitarian crisis, but the U.N. and international organisations have yet to settle on a response, in part because Russia has stood in the way by using its veto power at the U.N. Security Council. 

“Humanitarian assistance should flow to these people along the corridor on the Turkey-Syria border so at least we avoid a humanitarian tragedy,” Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former European Union ambassador to Turkey, told Ahval in a podcast, adding that adequate deliveries might also require a no-fly zone. 

The United States has voiced support for Turkey, but taken little action as it looks to disengage from Syria and curb arrivals from Muslim countries. A NATO official said last week that the alliance had no plans to support Turkey’s efforts to halt the Syrian advance. 

Most observers agree that if Assad forces were able to retake Idlib, the vast majority of the 2 million displaced would rush towards Turkey, if only because they are known to be opposed to Assad and, fearing reprisals, would be unwilling to live under his rule. 

Turkey had been widely praised for welcoming as many as 4 million Syrian refugees, but their presence has emerged as problematic for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and likely contributed to its defeats in local elections last year.

On the night main opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won Istanbul’s mayoral election, a hashtag trended on Turkish twitter: “Syrians, get out.” Amid high unemployment, the Turkish population has largely turned against Syrians and other immigrants. Last July in Istanbul, a group of angry locals went on a rampage, destroying dozens of Syrian shops before they were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. 

On Saturday, a Pakistani student at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and his friend faced “a barrage of punches, slaps, and kicks from at least eight to 10 male police officers,” he said in a series of tweets detailing the incident. He blamed the attack, which happened at an Istanbul mall, on their skin colour and inability to speak Turkish. 

One could imagine how Turkish police might mistake Pakistanis speaking Urdu for Syrians speaking Arabic. Max Abrahms, political science lecturer at Boston’s Northeastern University, co-authored a 2017 survey on Syrian refugees. Refugees in the report talked of being imprisoned, shot at and beaten by Turkish authorities. 

“Many of these refugees were escaping basically the clutches of death in Syria, and it’s extremely sad that they would arrive only to be mistreated, sometimes by that country’s security services,” he told Ahval in a podcast. 

Turkish officials have made clear their unwillingness to accept more refugees, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to allow them to pass through Turkey to Europe. In 2015 and 2016, European Union states were overwhelmed by the arrival of some 2 million refugees, forcing the bloc to hand Turkey 6 billion euros to staunch the flow. 

Now they could face a repeat. 

“The refugee tragedy might be reason for the EU to get more involved,” said Pierini, who thought the Turkish government might turn a blind eye and allow smugglers to move great numbers of refugees into Europe. 

Abrahms foresaw such efforts succeeding. Three out of every four Syrians surveyed in his report said they had been able to enter Europe on their first attempt, despite greater security measures since the 2016 Turkey-EU deal. 

A key EU concern is that Syrian rebels could attempt to mix in with the civilian refugee population and slip through Turkey and into Europe. The most powerful rebel group in Idlib today is al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

“European countries don’t really have strong border control,” he said. “It has been very easy for Syrian refugees to get into countries and these countries don’t have a good idea of who’s in their country and that’s a security problem.”

It is also a problem for arriving refugees. A January report from Human Rights Watch highlighted a rise in nativist populism across Europe, pointing to the increasing popularity of anti-immigrant agendas in Germany, Italy, Austria and Denmark. Last week, eight immigrants, including four of Turkish-Kurdish origin, were killed in a shooting in Hanau, Germany’s deadliest such attack in years. 

The suspected attacker posted a far-right manifesto on Facebook before the attack, calling for the extermination of people from Muslim-majority countries, including Turkey. A few days later, two unidentified attackers fired shots outside the Berlin home of prominent Turkish cleric Abdurrahman Atasoy. 

Erdoğan knows Turkey cannot accept 1 million or 2 million more Syrians, as it “would kill his future re-election prospects,” analyst Charles Lister wrote last weekend. Erdoğan also knows Europe is unlikely to take them, so he has come up with an alternative - a $25 billion plan to resettle as many as 2 million in Turkish-controlled areas in northeast Syria. 

Pierini pointed out that the area Turkey controls is too small and questions remain as to how Turkey would determine which refugees to resettle. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Without a comprehensive agreement on a political solution in Syria, with security guarantees and international monitoring, this is not going to work, period.”

Meanwhile, Idlib’s displaced are so desperate they have begun looking for their own alternatives. Some have fled east to Manbij and other areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Others are looking for ways to climb over the barbed wire-topped Turkish border wall as a major battle between Turkey and Syria looms. 

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 2,700 Turkish vehicles and nearly 7,500 Turkish soldiers had entered Syria in the previous 19 days. Yusuf Erim, foreign policy analyst at Turkish state broadcaster TRT World, has said Turkey plans to dispatch 15,000 troops. 

The key players, including Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, plan to meet on March 5 to discuss Idlib. With its reinforcements, Turkey may be looking to strengthen its negotiating position before the summit, rather than prepping for a major offensive. 

Last Friday, Erdoğan urged his Russian counterpart to restrain Assad’s forces in Idlib. The next day, Turkish presidential adviser Fahrettin Altun said, despite running out of patience, Turkey still trusted Russia to cooperate. Pierini saw that as a mistake, as Russian, Iranian and Syrian thinking on Idlib is strongly aligned. 

“Russia will not change its final objective, which is basically to allow Assad to regain control of the totality of the province whatever the human cost is,” he said.