Analysis

Why did Turkey ban displaced Syrians from entering the city of al-Bab?

Haid Haid, May 2018

In an unprecedented move, the Turkish authorities recently banned three convoys of forcibly displaced Syrians (IDPs) from entering the northern city of al-Bab. The hundreds of people in the convoys – the majority of whom were women and children – were left without any assistance amidst extreme winter conditions. The significance of this incident is not only limited to Turkey’s decision – for the first time – to prevent Syrians from entering other parts of their country, it also gives an insight into the black box of Turkey’s governance dynamics inside its zones of influence in Syria and the extent of its intervention.

Areas under Turkey’s dominance in northeastern Syria – namely Jarablus, al-Bab and more recently Afrin – have become the de-facto choice for the people who are forced by the regime to leave their areas, but do not want to go to Idlib. Consequently, thousands of Syrians were relocated to those areas over the past year. But unlike previous caravans, which were permitted to reach their destinations, two convoys from Damascus and one from Homs were prevented from entering Turkey’s zones of influence through the city of al-Bab.

Different reasons were used by the Turkish authorities to justify their decision. The most cited one was the inability of Turkish-backed actors to accommodate the new arrivals as a result of not being informed in advance about the displaced convoys. Security concerns were also mentioned regarding the potential presence of ISIS fighters inside the convoys. But many locals suspected that Turkey knew about the convoys in advance, as the forced displacement negotiations were widely covered for days. Thus, they think that Turkey had enough time to make the needed arrangements either directly or by reaching out to international humanitarian groups.

Moreover, Turkey’s inability in the past to accommodate displaced people did not result in banning them from entering their destination. The majority of displaced people from previous convoys are still staying in temporary tents that were established after their arrival. Additionally, even if the convoys had fighters affiliated with ISIS, Turkey could have limited the ban to those individuals, which could have been identified through its local allies. 

However local opinion, as well as observers, has suggested other ulterior motives behind Turkey’s ban – either as a way to pressure international humanitarian groups to donate more money to fund its humanitarian efforts inside Syria, or as a political message to Russia, which allegedly brokered the deals without coordinating with Turkey.

Regardless of the true reason, the arrival of thousands of people -- since the recent battle in Ghouta -- has certainly amplified the local governance challenges of the respective territories. Likewise, the arrival of thousands of displaced fighters – an estimate of around than 11,000 insurgents – presents Turkey’s project to professionalise its rebel allies – which is still in a fragile state – with an existential threat. This objective was partially reached. The convoy from eastern Homs agreed to be relocated to the countryside of Idlib. But the southern Damascus convoys, which view HTS as a hostile force, refused to change their destination.

The pictures of the banned displaced people left in dire conditions triggered widespread criticism and demonstrations in al-Bab to pressure Turkey to allow Syrians to enter Syrian cities. The enormous local pressure, the negative media coverage and the convoys’ refusal to change their destination eventually pressured Turkey to allow the convoys to enter. 

 The ban clearly reflected the unbalanced power dynamics inside Turkey’s areas of dominance inside Syria. Consequently, it ignited strong resentment against the Turkish-backed governing structures and negatively impacted their legitimacy. Repairing such damages can only be done by limiting Turkey’s intervention in Syria to supporting local actors’ efforts to govern their areas instead of doing it on their behalf.

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Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.