Earlier this month, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his government is aiming to encourage one million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return to their country and be settled in the Turkish-backed ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.
Ankara guaranteed that it would provide transportation, shelter, and humanitarian aid to any of the refugees who voluntarily accept the proposal. Tens of thousands of briquette houses have been built in the zone by Turkey, as well as hundreds of health centres and dozens of hospitals. There are also reportedly 50,000 jobs that have been created in the zone and are ready to be filled by the returnees.
The safe zone’s readiness comes after multiple Turkish military operations conducted in northern Syria over the past few years, which cleared the areas of Kurdish militant groups. Those territories are now run by Syrian opposition militant groups backed by Turkey.
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week condemned Erdogan’s plans, saying that his “cheap statements” reveal his government’s “aggressive games against Syria and the unity of its land and people”, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
“The government of the Syrian Arab Republic absolutely rejects such games,” the ministry stated, claiming that “the main objective is colonialism…The so-called safe zone is in fact ethnic cleansing.” It also called on countries not to finance Turkey’s planned projects, and to cease support for Ankara as a whole.
So far, there is little to no international backing of Turkey’s plans to settle refugees in the safe zone, especially financially. A few years ago, however, Germany under its previous government gave its support for the idea. Regardless, the project is essential to Erdogan’s efforts to stave off the Turkish opposition’s attacks against his government – as well as the growing discontent amongst Turkish society – over the presence of over 4 million refugees within the country.