Humanitarians are warning that a Turkish invasion in northeast Syria could force hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, as confusion reigns over its possible timing, scope, and consequences.
Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told reporters in Geneva on Monday that any military operation must guard against causing further displacement. “We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” he said, noting that an estimated 1.7 million people live in the country’s northeast.
Some residents close to the Syria-Turkey border are already leaving, one aid worker familiar with the situation on the ground told The New Humanitarian. Most are staying with relatives in nearby villages for the time-being, said the aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous in order to continue their work.
The number of people who have left their homes so far remains relatively small, the aid worker said, but added: “If there is an incursion, people will leave.”
The International Rescue Committee said “a military offensive could immediately displace at least 300,000 people”, but analysts TNH spoke to cautioned that the actual number would depend on Turkey’s plans, which remain a major unknown.
As the diplomatic and security communities struggle to get a handle on what’s next, the same goes for humanitarians in northeastern Syria – and the communities they are trying to serve.
Here’s what we know, and what we don’t:
What just happened?
Late on Sunday night, the White House said that following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” adding that US soldiers would not be part of the move, and “will no longer be in the immediate area”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the Syrian-Kurdish-led militia that until now had been supported by the United States and played a major role in wresting territory back from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria – vowed to stand its ground in the northeast.
An SDF spokesperson tweeted that the group “will not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack by Turkey into an all-out war on the entire border to DEFEND ourselves and our people”.
Leading Republicans in the US Congress criticised President Donald Trump’s decision, saying it represents an abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria, and the Pentagon appeared both caught off-guard and opposed to a Turkish incursion.
Since then, Trump has tweeted extensively on the subject, threatening to “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if the country does anything he considers to be “off limits”.
On the ground, US troops have moved out of two key observation posts on the Turkey-Syria border, in relatively small numbers: estimates range from 50 to 150 of the total who would have been shifted, out of around 1,000 US soldiers in the country.
What is Turkey doing?
Erdogan has long had his sights on a “safe zone” inside Syria, which he has said could eventually become home to as many as three million Syrian refugees, currently in Turkey.
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in August that only 17 percent of Turkey’s estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees come from the northeast of the country, which is administered by the SDF and its political wing.
Turkish and US forces began joint patrols of a small stretch of the border early last month. While Turkey began calling the area a “safe zone”, the United States referred to it as a “security mechanism”. The terms of the deal were either never made public or not hammered out.
In addition to any desire to resettle refugees, which might only be a secondary motive, Turkey wants control of northeast Syria to rein in the power of the SDF, which it considers to be a terrorist organisation.
One of the SDF’s main constituent parts are People’s Defense Units – known by their Kurdish acronym YPG.
The YPG are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK – a Turkey-based Kurdish separatist organisation that has conducted an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades, leading to a bloody crackdown.
While rebels fight for the northwest, and Russian-backed Syrian government forces control most of the rest of Syria, the SDF currently rules over almost all of Hassakeh province, most of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, and a small part of Aleppo province.
How many civilians are at risk?
There has not been a census in Syria for years, and numbers shift quickly as people flee different pockets of conflict. This makes estimating the number of civilians in northeast Syria very difficult.
The IRC said in its statement it is “deeply concerned about the lives and livelihoods of the two million civilians in northeast Syria”; Moumtzis mentioned 1.7 million people; and Save the Children said “there are 1.65 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in this area, including more than 650,000 displaced by war”.
Of those who have had to leave their homes in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hassakeh, only 100,000 are living in camps, according to figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Others rent houses or apartments, and some live in unfinished buildings or tents.
“While many commentators are rightly focusing on the security implications of this policy reversal, the humanitarian implications will be equally enormous,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a former high-ranking Obama administration aid official.
“All across Northern Syria, hundreds of thousands of displaced and conflict-affected people who survived the horrors of the… [IS] era will now face the risk of new violence between Turkish and SDF forces.”
Who will be first in the firing line?
It’s unlikely all of northeast Syria would be impacted by a Turkish invasion right away, given that so far the United States has only moved its troops away from two border posts, at Tel Abyad (Kurdish name: Gire Spi), and roughly 100 kilometres to the east, at Ras al-Ayn (Kurdish name: Serê Kaniyê).
Depending on how far into Syria one is counting, aid workers estimate there are between 52,000 to 68,000 people in this 100-kilometre strip, including the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn themselves. The aid worker in northeast Syria told TNH that if there is an offensive, these people are more likely, at least initially, to stay with family or friends in nearby villages than to end up in camps.
The aid worker added that while humanitarian operations from more than 70 NGOs are ongoing across the northeast, including in places like Tel Abyad, some locals are avoiding the town itself and, in general, people are “extremely worried”.
What will happen to al-Hol camp?
The fate of the rest of northeast Syria’s population may also be at risk.
Trump tweeted on Monday that the Kurds “must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families”.
The SDF currently administers al-Hol, a tense camp of more than 68,000 people – mostly women and children – deep in Hassakeh province, where the World Health Organisation recently said people are living “in harsh and deplorable conditions, with limited access to quality basic services, sub-optimal environment and concerns of insecurity.”
Many of the residents of al-Hol stayed with IS through its last days in Syria, and the camp holds both these supporters and people who fled the group earlier on.
Last week, Médecins Sans Frontières said security forces shot at women protesting in a part of the camp known as “the annex”, which holds around 10,000 who are not Syrian or Iraqi.
The SDF also holds more than 10,000 IS detainees in other prisons, and the possible release of these people – plus those at al-Hol – may become a useful bargaining chip for the Kurdish-led group.
On Monday, an SDF commander said guarding the prisoners had become a “second priority” in the wake of a possible Turkish offensive.
“All their families are located in the border area,” General Mazloum Kobani Abdi told NBC News of the SDF fighters who had been guarding the prisoners. “So they are forced to defend their families.”