The ambitious plan of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to resettle at least one million Syrian refugees within a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border has come a step closer to being realised. Turkey has long demanded a buffer zone along its border with Syria to check Kurdish nationalist aspirations, which it considers a grave security threat. Erdogan reframed the idea of the buffer zone in humanitarian terms, as a haven for millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. (Turkey’s ongoing incursion into northeast Syria began Wednesday after President Donald Trump announced the surprise withdrawal of US troops from the area)
Resettling the Syrian refugees across the border would ease this pressure on Erdogan and his government. But there is another goal as well. Ankara has consistently opposed the emergence of any Kurdish-led autonomous region in northeastern Syria. An influx of displaced people from other parts of Syria would create a living, breathing demographic barrier to Kurdish autonomy.
Despite Turkey framing the move as an effort to mitigate a humanitarian crisis, Erdogan’s resettlement plan risks creating a far larger one. The history of similar resettlement policies shows that they can be brutally effective from the perspective of the governments orchestrating them. But such policies almost always end badly for the ordinary people caught up in them. These policies create suffering for the people being moved and even greater suffering for the people whose land others are being moved to.
What’s more, deliberately pitting two populations against each other is a perfect recipe for enduring ethnic tensions — tensions that will continue to cause instability even after fighting between Turkish and local forces subsides.
Long before the current refugee crisis, Ankara demonstrated a willingness to expel or transplant communities as a means to ensure greater control over predominantly Kurdish areas. From the early 1920s forward, Turkish officials used resettlement to eliminate Kurdish resistance in southeastern Turkey and pre-empt any threat of separatism.
Thousands of settled and nomadic communities were expelled from their lands while hundreds of prominent civic leaders were forcibly resettled in remote parts of the country. Refugees from other regions were moved in to replace them. Until the 1950s, the Turkish government endeavoured to populate notably Kurdish districts with immigrants from the Balkans and Caucasus. As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, Ankara has resettled thousands of refugees from Central Asia, most notably ethnic Kyrgyz, in areas close to the country’s border.
All of these transfers relied on a cynical logic of comparative loyalty. Kurds who were seen as disloyal and destabilising in their native region became the government’s allies when they were used to displace Greeks in Cyprus. Albanian and Circassian immigrants were seen as source of crime and unrest when they initially settled near Istanbul. When they were sent to the southeast, the same reputation for violence made them an asset in counterbalancing Kurdish tribes.
But a century of such efforts has not brought peace or order to the region. Often resettlement itself proved temporary, as immigrant communities, forced into inhospitable surroundings, refused to settle, moved on, or in extreme cases died out over time.
Refugees sent to northeastern Syria today would similarly face adverse circumstances. Ankara has promised them newly built homes and land to farm. But the Syrian refugees, many of whom were never farmers, will undoubtedly wonder whether these homes will ever be built — and whether the locals, be they Kurdish or Arab, will eventually want their farmland back.
The refugees may not have a better choice. The Turkish government would be tempted to overcome refugees’ own reservations by making their lives in Turkey increasingly miserable. In the last several months, refugees have already reported increased pressure to “voluntarily” return to Syria.
Ankara’s plans will face fiercer resistance from the residents of northeastern Syria, who are not ignorant of their history. Many people living in the region are the descendants of tens of thousands of Kurdish, Armenian and Assyrian refugees who fled Turkey during the violence surrounding the country’s creation. For them, the possible resettlement of a million refugees, particularly nonlocal Arabs, carries echoes of the Turkish policies that forced their ancestors from their original homes in Anatolia.
Turkey’s previous operations in Syria have exacerbated these concerns. Many former Kurdish residents of Afrin remain displaced after Turkey occupied the region in early 2018. And even after its earlier occupation of the predominantly Arab region of Jarabulus in northwestern Syria, Ankara has been unable to resettle as many refugees as it hoped.
American officials claim they have no knowledge of how extensive Turkey’s operation into northeastern Syria will be. But whatever part of the region Turkey eventually seeks control over, it will face an ethnically mixed, substantially Kurdish population that does not want to have its territory appropriated for Ankara’s resettlement plans.
Ryan Gingeras is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Nick Danforth is a senior visiting Fellow for the German Marshall Fund focusing on US-Turkish relations
New York Times