All the regional neighbours of Syria have been paying the price of its ongoing civil war for almost a decade, with about six million refugees now distributed among Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and other states in the Middle East.
These numbers are now likely to increase, analysts expect, due to the fighting between troops loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Turkish forces in north-west Syria, especially around the town of Idlib.
This week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire to the fighting as more than 900,000 people have been displaced since December 2019.
“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas. People are on the move in freezing temperatures in search of safety which has become ever more difficult,” Guterres said in a statement, urging the need for all parties to abide by international law.
“There is no military solution. The only path to stability is a credible and inclusive UN-facilitated political solution pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015),” he said.
Other UN officials also expressed concerns about the conditions of women and children in the region, with families displaced several times in freezing temperatures. A spokesperson for UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said that “no shelter is now safe” as the Syrian “government offensive continues, and people are forced into smaller and smaller pockets… and [Bachelet] fears even more people will be killed.”
The UN children’s fund UNICEF warned that 1.8 million children in north west Syria “require humanitarian assistance.”
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Elizabeth Ferris, a professor of international migration studies at Georgetown University in the US, referred to problems facing people in north-west Syria, including closed borders, violations of international law and few expressions of outrage by regional and international governments.
“Could this become a refugee crisis? I think that’s the wrong question – it is already a displacement crisis of mammoth proportions, an internal displacement crisis. We need to do much more to support those who are displaced within their countries, not because if we don’t, they might become refugees and turn up on the borders of other countries, but because they’re human beings in need. I still believe in the humanitarian imperative of aiding those who are fleeing violence, whatever the politics of it all,” Ferris said, recalling her earlier work in international humanitarian response.
But politics are unlikely to be separated from humanitarian outcomes, as the Syrian regime wants to expand its control over the whole territory, which it lost during the civil war, while Turkey is still reluctant to end its support for the Syrian rebels holed up in Idlib.
This has led to a politico-military deadlock, and in addition to some areas in Aleppo, Latakia and Hama, Idlib is still under the control of the rebel and Islamist militant groups that have been fighting against Al-Assad’s troops since 2011.
Syrian regime forces, Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias have managed to restore government control over most Syrian territory over the past few years, and they are now turning to “liberate” Idlib, which shares borders with Turkey.
The leading anti-Al-Assad force in Idlib is the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group, which is backed by the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army.
Talks between the Turks and the Russians have produced no settlement so far, a situation that directly affects the conditions of the displaced people in the region. France and Germany recently called for a summit meeting to be attended by Russia and Turkey to find a solution to the crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would join the meeting, though he insisted on Tuesday that “there is no full agreement yet” on holding it. It has been tentatively scheduled for 5 March.
For Mohamed Abdel-Kader, a Turkey expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Idlib is more than a war-related issue and is a humanitarian and refugee crisis. “People have traditionally moved to Idlib to escape regime forces when they military advance in other areas in Syria. Any further movements of civilians afterwards are normally towards the Turkish borders,” Abdel-Kader said.
He said the current humanitarian crisis has pushed the international community to put pressure on the warring parties to end the fighting in Idlib. But he stressed that “there are no guarantees” of reaching a settlement, especially during the planned summit meeting on Syria, as “there are a lot of grey areas” in the positions of all the parties.
“At some stage, this has to end, however,” he said, noting that Syrian regime forces now control almost 77 per cent of the territory as opposed to 12 per cent when Turkey started its operations in the war-torn country a few years ago. For Abdel-Kader, while the Al-Assad regime has plans to restore its control over all the country, Turkey has not yet decided to fully withdraw from Syria.
“Turkey still has troops out there [in Syria], investing in armed militias and even educating people in its language in some parts. Erdogan is almost planning for a permanent deployment of his troops in Syria. There has to be a deal between the Russians and the Turks. It is not in the interest of Russia to see Turkey restoring strong relations with the West, however,” Abdel-Kader said.
Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP, believes that the battles in Idlib have both domestic and regional implications for Turkey, a country that hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. He said that Turkey was a top destination for displaced Syrians from Idlib and a new refugee wave would exacerbate the growing anti-refuge sentiment in Turkey, further “eroding domestic support for the Turkish government.”
Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington DC, said that this was one of the reasons Erdogan was trying to negotiate a deal with Russia, hoping that a new Idlib agreement could prevent additional refugee flows.
He said that the critical issue in Turkish-Russian negotiations at this point was the new line of control for the warring factions and the status of Turkish observation posts in Syria, some of which are now in areas controlled by Al-Assad’s forces.
“Ultimately, both sides could agree to a new demarcation line, which would give control of the M-4 and M-5 motorways [in northern Syria] to Al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, while the Syrian rebels retain a much smaller region near the Turkish border,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly