Turkey’s Military Operation in Northern Syria Could Cause Mass Displacement and Further Destabilization in the Region

October 9, 2019
Turkey-proposed "safe zone" (blue). Regime, opposition, and SDF held areas are in red, green and blue, respectively. Source: Suriye Gündemi, Turkey. October 8, 2019.

Turkey-proposed "safe zone" (blue). Regime, opposition, and SDF held areas are in red, green and yellow, respectively. Source: Suriye Gündemi, Turkey. October 8, 2019.

The United States’ October 6 decision to withdraw troops from the autonomous Northeast region of Syria that borders Turkey sets the stage for an expected Turkish military operation that could fundamentally reshape the region and upend the current fragile but relatively stable peace.  If the Turkish incursion leads to all-out armed conflict, tens if not hundreds of thousands could be uprooted, and civilian casualties are all but certain.  Turkey’s previous military actions in Northern Syria show how the situation might unfold post-conflict with potentially serious consequences for the Aleppo Governorate.  While this post focuses on only the areas within the Aleppo Governorate, the entire SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces)-administered region could face consequences to which this post alludes.

While few details about Turkey’s impending operation are known at time of writing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 that he sought to establish a 30 kilometer “safe zone” inside Syria along its border with Turkey.  Erdogan further floated the possibility of extending the “safe zone” as far as the Raqqa – Deir ez Zor line, 80 km into Syria, ostensibly for the purpose of repatriating 3 million Syrian refugees. 

Even the initial 30 kilometer ”safe zone” would place Turkish forces or their allies in control of a sizable swath of territory presently administered by the multi-ethnic but Kurd dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  The proposed safe zone along with the entire SDF led area includes a mix of population centers, some of which are majority Arab, despite a dwindling population.  Arabs displaced from some Kurdish-led areas are reluctant to return for fear of persecution or forced conscription by the SDF.

SDF leaders have said they intend to defend their territory against a Turkish incursion, and in light of the impending Turkish invasion have floated the possibility of cooperating with forces loyal to the Assad regime, and possibly Russia, to protect Syria’s territorial integrity. 

Regardless of the ultimate intensity of Turkey’s proposed military action, in all likelihood, large numbers of Kurds would flee to other parts of Northern Syria where the majority of the population is Arab Sunni Muslim.  Turkey has suggested it might resettle as many as three million mostly Sunni Arab Syrian refugees in the Northern region it seeks to control.  The potential knock-on consequences of such a massive demographic shift are likely to create a host of new problems that would threaten the region’s stability.

The aftermath of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch which targeted Syria’s then majority-Kurd Afrin district from January to March 2018 led to socioeconomic and demographic upheaval throughout the surrounding area.  After militarily securing Afrin and defeating Kurdish forces, Turkey placed its Sunni Arab ally the Syrian National Army (SNA) in control of the district.  As a result, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), by April 2018, the operation and transfer of control led to the displacement of 137,000 Afrin district residents, most of whom are Kurds, a number that has certainly grown in the intervening 18 months.  Concurrently, peace deals and demilitarization have relocated to Afrin tens of thousands of Arab Syrians from formerly rebel-held other parts of the country besieged by years of relentless Assad regime attacks.

The impact on the Kurdish population has been enormous. Since March 2018, more than half of Afrin’s Kurdish residents have left while thousands of internally displaced Arab Syrians relocated to Afrin.  In many cases, the SNA placed the internal refugees of the regime in homes and property belonging to Kurdish former residents.  Kurds in Afrin have complained of discrimination and targeted violence against them under the Turkish-backed Arab leadership of the SNA.  In the process, Afrin’s Kurdish population has shrunk from approximately 60 percent less than 25 percent. 

In a related development in 2018, Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party of Syria’s Kurds) forces prevailed over the Arab rebel groups that had controlled the Arab-majority Tell Rifaat region.  Having secured victories over ISIS elsewhere with American support, the PYD could focus on taking Tell Rifaat from Arab groups that were still fighting ISIS and the regime.  As a result, Tell Rifaat’s population has transformed from majority Arab to majority Kurd, with its Arab residents displaced to other regions.  In the wake of Turkey’s assault on Afrin, Tell Rifaat constituted the only refuge available to many fleeing Kurds.

The Kobane canton, the Kurdish majority capital of which (also Kobane) sits just south of the Turkish border, looks certain to be a primary target of Turkey’s operation.  While Kobane was practically overrun by ISIS between September and December 2014, by April 2015, Kurdish forces drove ISIS out of the region, enabling Kurdish forces to confront ISIS fighters and defeat them in Raqqa, Manbij, and other areas far to Kobane’s south.   Turkish/FSA control of Kobane would likely result in an outflow of the region’s Kurds, similar to what happened in Afrin, to majority Arab regions.  The demographic and socioeconomic consequences for Kobane could mirror those in Afrin, while the majority Arab regions to which Kobane’s Kurds flee, could see demographic changes similar to Tell Rifaat.  The consequences of potentially sudden and unexpected population reconfigurations, could result in further dislocation of people and enflame ethnic tensions.

While Manbij and Tell Rifaat, both currently under SDF control, sit outside Turkey’s proposed 30 km safe zone, both cities could be affected, either by an influx of displaced persons or a direct assault from Turkey or its allies should they try to extend the safe zone. 

Turkey’s appeal to Arabs currently allied with the SDF to defect and join the SNA, could reignite Arab-Kurd conflict in the region where SDF rule had brought it largely under control.  The Assad regime maintains some presence in Tell Rifaat, and the SDF has hinted it might cede control of Manbij to the regime if it were forced out, perhaps in exchange for other territory. 

While it is impossible to predict the exact result of Turkish military intervention in Northern Syria, it is certain to cause a mass population displacement and some degree of casualties.  In addition to the expected hardships (lack of shelter, food, medical care, etc.) that could face potentially hundreds of thousands of newly displaced persons, the mass movement of people throughout the region will likely upend the fragile structures that cities and communities only recently liberated from ISIS are trying to build and maintain.  This stress combined with a further scrambling of the region’s ethnic composition and political affiliation will at best further complicate the establishment of a long-term peace, and at worst could lead to armed conflict among Northern Syria’s ethnic groups.  Such a scenario could provide ISIS the opportunity it needs to come out of the shadows to threaten regional and international security once again.