As Turkish troops finalise plans to attack north-east Syria, Ankara’s scheme to move millions of refugees into conquered territory is alarming Western allies as much as the military operation.
Addressing world leaders at the United Nations two weeks ago, President Tayyip Erdogan held up a map setting out ambitious proposals to build new villages and towns to settle Syrian refugees.
His map showed a million Syrians would be housed in the north-east. Erdogan told the UN General Assembly even more – up to two million – refugees could settle there once Turkish soldiers take control.
For Turkey, which hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, returning Syrians has become an urgent priority as it battles economic recession and high unemployment.
Most of the 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey are from Sunni Arab areas in western Syria, not the Kurdish north-east. Moving refugees hundreds of miles from their homes would involve a drastic demographic shift.
A senior US State Department official described the plan as “probably the craziest idea I’ve ever heard”.
Reports in July of refugees being forcibly deported from Istanbul raised concerns about large scale returns. Turkey says it has not sent any Syrians back against their will.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, voicing widely held European concerns, said Syrian refugees should be able to return voluntarily. “I don’t think they should be returned by any military operation, Turkish or otherwise,” he said.
A European diplomat said the European Union, which disbursed most of a six billion euro aid package to help Turkey host refugees, would look sceptically at requests to fund projects in Syria before any political settlement ends its eight-year conflict.
Ankara dismissed concerns about the impact of a return of refugees from Turkey, saying any change to the population would redress moves by Kurdish forces which currently control the region.
“Turkey has no interest in occupation or changing demographics. The PKK/YPG did that in north-east Syria. Time to correct it,” Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.
For Ankara, which views Kurdish YPG fighters in north-east Syria as terrorists because of ties to militants waging an insurgency in Turkey, an influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Other areas of Syria have seen drastic population changes, with rebellious Sunni neighbourhoods in Homs and Damascus emptied by fighting. Villages in northern and western Syria have seen deals to evacuate Sunni and Shi’ite residents.
CEMENT SHARES RISE
Before heading to the United Nations, Erdogan said the Turkish-controlled zone “will allow the refugees to return to their lands and allow for all their needs, from education, health, shelter to be met.
“It will allow them to live on their own land instead of tent towns and container cities,” he told Reuters.
He later said the number of Syrians returning could rise to three million if Turkey’s incursion went beyond the “safe zone” it plans in north-east Syria.
Turkey launched two military incursions in Syria’s north-west and says those operations showed it can restore services and infrastructure to areas devastated by war.
“In the safe zones we create, we make sure conditions to live like humans are met and continue to do so,” Vice President Fuat Oktay said.
He said Turkey brought security, health, education, shelter, roads, water and electricity, allowing 370 000 Syrian refugees to return.
Erdogan made no mention of the cost of his plans for north-east Syria, but state broadcaster TRT gave a figure of 151 billion lira ($27 billion).
That figure, and the scale of the potential construction projects, lifted shares in Turkish cement companies with production plants near the Syrian border.
Mardin Cimento and Adana Cimento stocks rose two days this week on expectations of business opportunities in the area.
“The buying is due to developments in Syria, the expectation of reconstruction in the region,” said an analyst at a Turkish brokerage.
In theory, a building boom on its southern border is the boost Turkey’s economy needs. It slipped into recession last year, following years of growth fuelled by a surge in construction funded by cheap credit. Firms in the sector are among the hardest hit by the downturn.
Where the money would come from to fund the building projects – assuming Turkey is able to control the 500 km border – is another question.
“When you look at the length of the border and the Turks say they want a safe zone all along it … demilitarised, controlled by Turkey and then put three million refugees there and get the Europeans to pay $26 billion, it’s not going to happen,” a European diplomatic source said.
“It’s not realistic, it’s fantasy.”