As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated his third decade in power, he emphasized his intentions to bring back a million Syrian refugees, capitalizing on a surge of nationalism. However, fulfilling this promise may prove challenging due to the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria.
Erdogan, long seen as an ally by Syrian opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, emphasized refugee repatriation during bitter campaigning for Sunday’s runoff against Kemal Kilicidaroglu, who took an even tougher stance on the issue.
The focus on refugee return ahead of the election caused alarm among the 3.4 million Syrians living in Turkey, where resentment towards them is growing.
Many of the refugees came from parts of Syria that remain under al-Assad’s control and say they can never return to their towns and villages while he remains in power.
Under Erdogan’s plans, they would not have to. With Qatari help, he says Turkey has been building new housing in rebel-held northwest Syria – a region where Ankara has troops on the ground whose presence has deterred Syrian government attacks.
The plans imply a redoubling of Turkey’s commitment to the rebel-held area where it has been building influence for years, even as al-Assad demands a timetable for the withdrawal of Turkish troops as a condition for progress towards rebuilding ties.
With Turkish voters increasingly resentful of the refugees – Turkey hosts more than any other country – Erdogan’s plans put the issue at the heart of his Syria policy, alongside concerns about Syrian Kurdish groups that have carved out enclaves at the border and are deemed a national security threat by Turkey.
Erdogan has said he aims to ensure the return of one million refugees within a year to the opposition-held areas. His interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, last week attended the inauguration of a housing project meant to accommodate returning Syrians in the Syrian town of Jarablus.
“It is our duty to fulfil our citizens’ expectations about this issue through ways and means that befit our country,” Erdogan said in his victory speech on Sunday, adding that nearly 600,000 Syrians had already returned voluntarily to safe areas.
But for many Syrians in Turkey, the prospect is unappealing.
“I would like to go back to Syria but not to Jarablus … I would like to go back home, to Latakia,” said a Syrian who gave his name as Ahmed, a 28-year-old student at Ankara University, referring to a government-held region on the Mediterranean.
“I would like to go back, but if al-Assad stays, I can’t due to security concerns.”
Controlled by an array of armed groups, much of the northwest also suffers from lawlessness.
“Conditions in northern Syria remain so bad and unstable that large-scale return will be difficult to arrange, despite all these reports about Turkey and Qatar building housing and infrastructure,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert with Century International, a think tank.
“It seems like a drop in the ocean and the overall economic situation keeps deteriorating.”
Driven partly by its goal of securing refugee returns, Turkey has changed diplomatic course on Syria, following other regional governments by reopening channels to al-Assad, who Erdogan once called a “butcher.”
But the rapprochement is moving more slowly than the thaw between al-Assad and his former Arab foes, reflecting Turkey’s much deeper role in a country where Russia, Iran and the United States also have forces on the ground.
Analysts think Ankara will not agree easily to al-Assad’s demand for a withdrawal timetable, noting that any sign of Turkish forces leaving would prompt more Syrians to try to flee for Turkey, fearing a return of al-Assad’s rule to the northwest.
“Turkey is highly unlikely to compromise on troop withdrawal, which likely means hundreds of thousands of refugees heading their way if and when they leave Idlib,” said Dareen Khalifa of International Crisis Group, a think-tank.
Many Syrians in Turkey were relieved at Kilicidaroglu’s defeat. During his campaign, he said he would discuss plans for refugee returns with al-Assad after reinstating relations, and that returns would be completed in two years but would not be forced.
He sharpened his tone after trailing Erdogan in the first round, vowing to send all migrants back to their countries.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser, said on Monday that Turkey wanted a safe, dignified and voluntary return.
International refugee law stipulates that all returns must be voluntary.
“We’re making plans to secure the return of one or 1.5 million Syrians in the first place,” Kalin told a local broadcaster.
Samir Alabdullah of the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies in Istanbul, a non-profit research institution, said he did not expect much to change now the election battle is over.
“Syrians are relieved after Erdogan’s victory … There is nothing wrong with voluntary return. We do not expect policy change on migration,” he said.