There are no perfect solutions for Syrians who want to return home, but it is time to accept that and find the best path forward.
The German Christian Democratic Union party has proposed to deport criminal Syrian asylum seekers back to areas in Syria under the protection of Turkey. Currently, the German Foreign Office is evaluating the proposal. Regardless of any decision taken by the German government, this proposal is a reminder of evaluating the potential for the return of Syrian refugees back to Syria.
The general perception surrounding Syrian refugees is distorted. The voluntary return of Syrians back to their own country is possible and necessary. Political pragmatism and the will to find cost-efficient solutions can open the way for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians who wish to live in Syria.
Primarily, four dynamics have to come together to facilitate the voluntary return of Syrians back to Syria; the willingness of refugees to go back to Syria, the willingness of local authorities to welcome them back, security, adequate infrastructure and economic opportunities.
Looking at the four main dynamics, it is certain that no refugee wants to go back to the regime-controlled areas of Syria. If they would, they would have already done so. Also, refugees do not want to go back to areas controlled by the PKK/YPG terror group.
Even Syrian Kurds in northern Iraq prefer to live in camps rather than to return to northeast Syria. Lastly, Idlib is neither safe nor does the presence of radicals inspire confidence in any refugee.
This leaves us with the areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government in northern Syria, but due to the massive presence of IDPs, this area has had a massive population growth of 229 percent and cannot host many more Syrians. Therefore, the only viable option is the area liberated during Operation Peace Spring.
The area had a low population density before the war but amounts to a hefty 4,125 square kilometres. While the Syrian side has a population of around 200,000 – the Turkish side of the same strip has a population of more than 2 million.
Many Syrians in Turkey are willing to go back to Syria and the Syrian Interim Government and affiliated entities have repeatedly expressed their willingness to accept them. Also, the return of over 400,000 Syrians from Syria to the over-populated areas listed above is a strong indicator that the will exists.
What remains is the guarantee of safety. At the moment, this is provided by the Turkish Armed Forces. There seems to be no military power that would be willing to challenge Turkish protection over this area. In the case of a comprehensive approach to enable the return of Syrians back home, foreign states can allocate a symbolic military presence to ensure the safety of civilians and to guarantee Turkey’s deployment.
Lastly, while the area is large in terms of land, it does not have the infrastructure necessary for such a venture. A joint economic development program of countries willing to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees could achieve that. In reality, the economic aid would be less than the economic, social and political costs of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe.
The arguments against establishing safe-zones centre primarily around the notion of 'demographic change', mainly articulated by people with clear political motivations.
Before speaking of demographic change, one has to be aware of the realities in and around Syria. Syria is estimated to have a population of 16.91 million inside Syria, 5.5 million refugees and around one million asylum seekers in Europe.
In addition to more than a quarter of the total Syrian population outside of the country, 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced. Only 10 million out of 23 million Syrians are living in their actual homes. Demographic change in Syria has already happened, unfortunately, and in front of the eyes of the world.
Also, ethnic demographic change has been taking place across the country consistently. Currently, more Turkmens from Homs are living in northern Aleppo as IDPs than Turkmens in Homs, Bedouin Arabs from the desert of Deir Ezzor are living in the Turkmen border town of Al Rai, townsmen from Ghouta are living in the mountains of Afrin, townsmen from the historic neighbourhood of Old Aleppo city are now living in tents in Idlib, etc.
Even neighbourhoods in German cities like Berlin like Neukolln are more Arab than they were before. Accepting refugees and asylum seekers is humanity's obligation and the tragedy that is Syria has already occurred resulting in dramatic changes and only sub-optimal solutions remain to bring Syrian refugees home.
If anyone rejects helping Syrians to go back to northern Syria solely based on the notion of demographic change than that same person would label the current reality in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe as demographic change – which only fuels the destructive discourse of far-right racists.
The repatriation of Syrians should be welcomed by anyone with love or empathy for the Syrian people. Living outside of their own country as a refugee is worse living inside their own country with adequate means. Investing in a safe-zone for Syrians in northern Syria is a way to facilitate the demographic normalisation of Syria.
The Assad regime does not want Syrian refugees back inside Syria. The regime prefers a controllable population. No one expects the same regime that bombed its own citizens out of the country, to accept them back.
As long as the regime stays and controls the home towns of most Syrian refugees like Ghouta, Homs and Aleppo, these people won’t be able to return.
Accepting the reality on the ground, being pragmatic and seeing the economic, political and social benefits of Syrians voluntarily going back to Syria should be enough to work on a joint approach to build up a safe-zone for Syrian in the areas protected by Turkey in northern Syria.
Territory, safety and the willingness to return and to accept refugees all exist. What is missing are homes for people to live in.
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