ATurkish-Syrian rapprochement seems imminent as the Turkish side disclosed its plans of reconciling the Syrian opposition it backed with the Assad regime. Mending relations is allegedly a project of Russia, which puts pressure on Türkiye to recognize the Syrian regime in return for the creation of a secure environment for the return of Syrian migrants currently living in Türkiye.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long worked to keep his country a safe haven for migrants but criticism from the Turkish people has come to an unbearable level that he has to find a permanent solution to the migrant problem to win next year’s presidential elections. As per Syria analysts such as Ömer Özkızılcık and Sinan Hatahet, this sudden change in Ankara’s Syrian policy is seen as a way to show Moscow that regime leader Bashar Assad will not reconcile, and to convince the Turkish people that the government is doing its best to send migrants back their home.
Indeed, for its part, Assad does not have to restore relations with Türkiye since the absence of 10 million anti-regime Syrians lightens the burden of his regime and feels safe as there will be no significant opposition. However, he may still want reconciliation to balance the post-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iranian influence in Syria, recover the economy and win a victory over the opposition by cutting it off from its last supporter in the region.
While it is unclear how serious Ankara and Damascus are, those to be affected by the revival of relations, namely Syrian migrants, are worried about the latest developments. Türkiye hosts 3.7 million Syrian migrants currently. After escaping from the regime’s oppression and the ongoing civil war, many have created a new life in Türkiye. However, besides rising anti-migrant sentiments instigated by Turkish far-right groups, the possibility of returning back to Syria has alarmed many of them.
After official confirmation of the desire to repair diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime by the Turkish government, slow but growing mobility has started among the Syrian migrant community. While some Syrians don’t know what to do, some have already prepared or taken action for the worst scenario. Ali T., an accountant in Gaziantep, a city on the Syrian border with 500.000 migrants, says he has already lost six Syrian businesspeople, two of whom fled to Germany and Canada. Others are also looking for ways to emigrate to Europe, he added. The amount given to human traffickers per family is $10,000, the accountant also said.
A few other Syrians interviewed in Istanbul showed videos of the bombardment of the Syrian regime on the town of al-Bab. They claim the regime will not allow them to live in a peaceful environment when they return. Ammar Saed, a Syrian migrant, says they will knock on the gates of Europe instead of Syria. Another migrant Mahmoud Salem added that xenophobia is at its peak level in Türkiye and has ruined their hope of living in Türkiye.
Syrian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based in Türkiye also confirmed that the new destination for migrants will be European countries. An official from a Syrian association said many people have reapplied to the EU for asylum, and some are trying to go to Serbia from where they can reach Germany. Some Syrian migrants have already moved to Egypt, he added. Besides, some Syrian NGOs are thinking of relocating to Irbil.
The fear among Syrians is apparent and shows that they will head to Europe. The EU-Türkiye migration deal may not be enough to stop the refugee influx as the Turkish side isn’t in a position to stop them. While EU countries joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting Daesh, they did not exert much diplomatic effort for upholding peace in Syria. It is obvious that as long as the Russia and Iran-backed Assad regime is still in power, the displaced Syrian people won’t return. If Türkiye is no longer safe, Western European countries will be their new destination.
If the EU doesn’t contribute to plans prepared for the future of Syrian migrants, it will have another but this time bigger migrant problem. Unlike its immobile stance in the past, the EU should focus on the source of the problem (the Assad regime) and solve it in its origin (Syria). How the migration problem hurt Türkiye in the last decade and Europe between 2013 and 2015 should be a lesson learned and should compel European leaders to act fast. Otherwise, the new wave of refugees may shake the continent worse than before.
First published in Daily Sabah