Erdoğan’s safe zone plan resonates Turkey’s history of forced migration - analysis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey to a safe zone to be established in northern Syria resonates the state-facilitated or state-enforced population transfers in the former Ottoman Empire and in recent Turkish history, analyst Nick Ashdown said in Foreign Policy on Friday. 

Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria last month. Turkish military and the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels seized control of a 32 km deep region between northeastern Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces withdrew from the area in accordance with a U.S.-brokered deal.

Turkey’s offensive ended after Turkey and Russia agreed on a separate deal for the withdrawal of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main fighting force under the Syrian Democratic Forces, 30 km south from a 444 km stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Erdoğan has repeatedly said that he had planned to resettle at least a million of some 3.6 million Syrians living in Turkey to the safe zone to be established. The Turkish president has been criticised for attempting demographic engineering as the refugees to be resettled are Arab Sunni Muslims from Aleppo and Idlib in northwestern Syria, whereas the local population in northeast part of the country includes Arabs, Kurds, and Christians.

“That brings us to the worrisome historical resonances of Erdoğan’s proposed policy. State-facilitated or state-enforced population transfers have a long history in the former Ottoman Empire and have left an indelible imprint on northern Syria in particular,” Ashdown said. 

The country’s history of state-enforced population relocations dates back to 15th century, when the Ottoman Emprire moved populations in Anatolia to the Balkans to consolidate its rule, the analyst said. Some 5 million to 7 million Muslims escaped into Ottoman territories from the Balkans, Caucasus and Crimea during the collapse of the empire and were resettled by Ottoman authorities into border regions or into other areas to dilute religious minorities, he added.

Circassians fleeing a genocide at the hands of the Russians were eventually resettled by Ottoman authorities into the empire’s restless Syrian provinces, Ashdown said. An estimated minimum of one million people were killed during the mass deportation of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire. Some finally arrived to concentration camps in Deir al-Zor in northeast Syria after the death marches.

The new Turkish Republic founded in 1923 continued this policy by a population exchange with Greece. The Greek, Armenian and Jewish populations in Turkey have fallen substantially to date, as a result of pogroms and harsh measures targeting minorities like the 1942 Wealth Tax Act.

Turkey also altered the demographic balance of its mainly-Kurdish southeast by sending Turks to settle in the region during the 1920s and 1930s. This was followed by the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages during the height of the war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the 1990s, displacing tens of thousands of Kurds.