Recent trends in Syria and Turkey again direct focus on the incredible tragedy of Syria in general and the millions of Syrian refugees and IDP:s in particular, the victims of the for-ever conflicts within and around war-ridden Syria, for all the indifference and fatigue internationally as a result of the mere protraction and apparent insolubility of this one crisis, unfortunately one of many, globally. The trends now relate to electoral developments in Ankara and geo-political shifts as regards the Assad regime in Damascus.

The devastating civil war (or wars) in Syria since the 2011 uprising against the Assad regime in Syria, i.e., 12 bitterly long year of conflict, have resulted – in the estimate of UNHCR – in the world’s largest refugee crisis, with in total some 14 million Syrians (out of a total estimated population of some 23 million) having been forced to flee their homes, some 6.8 million remaining internally displaced and the rest, almost 6 million, for years living as refugees in other countries, most in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, and the others scattered globally – 850 000 in Germany, 172 000 in Sweden (!), 87 000 in the Netherlands, 70 000 in Canada and 45 000 in Austria, to mention the most significant cases. According to UNHCR estimates, 70 % of the (original) total population, i.e., 15.3 million Syrians, are in acute need of humanitarian assistance, while due to protracted fighting and lack of security international humanitarian access still is and has long been notoriously difficult.

In addition, the recent earthquake disaster hit especially hard all the displaced Syrians huddling in north-western Syria (Idlib, Aleppo) where they fled during the years after their home towns and areas were re-captured by Assad forces with Russian military assistance – and where jihadist anti-Assad groups such as HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) still govern, with more or less discrete support from Turkey.

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A sizeable portion of this huge army of refugees, some 4 million, have ever since the early years of conflict in Syria been received by and remain residing in Turkey, making Turkey the world’s biggest refugee host country, in absolute terms. Their presence in Turkey – and the wish by most of them to continue their journey to Europe – has both provided a critical part of the EU-Turkey political agenda and has become an increasingly sensitive bone of contention in Turkish domestic politics, especially in the context of the recent Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections. Therefore, and in view of the demonstrated militancy of Turkey’s Syria policy in recent years (and since the EU has made every effort to prevent these refugees from illegally entering Europe), it was only to be expected that the question of whether and how to secure a substantive return home to Syria of these millions of Syrian refugees would become a dominant electoral issue in Turkey.

Simultaneously, on the Syrian side, there has in recent days happened a major event, the Saudi invitation to president Assad to attend – for the first time since 2011 – a formal Arab League summit, symbolically representing the culmination of a long-brewing urge for normalization with the 22-member circle of states of the Arab world, after all the years of civil war and regional (and global) isolation on the part of the Assad regime. This strategically significant event, reflecting decreasing Arab countries’ reliance on US guidance and leadership in a fluid geopolitical context (countering continued Biden administration – and EU – resistance to any legitimization of the Assad regime), in turn coincides with the other recent significant event in the region, the Chinese sponsored normalization steps between Saudi Arabia and Iran, all the while the US struggles – in spite of its problematic relations with the new Netanyahu government –  with its sponsorship of Saudi-Israeli normalization in line with the Abraham Accords of Arab-Israeli (anti-Iran) normalization.

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In this incredibly vexed and fluid situation in the region, the Assad regime in Damascus appears to emerge as the winner, at least in the sense of having gained Arab (most, albeit not all) recognition, at long last, as the victor of the Syrian war, and therefore as the legitimate counterpart in discussions henceforth about Syria’s refugee resettlement and Syria’s physical reconstruction, among other things.

All these developments reinforce Assad’s negotiating position vis-à-vis both Russia, Assad’s  supporter ever since 2015, and Erdogan’s Turkey, Assad’s mortal enemy since the early years of conflict which in recent months has made a diplomatic volte-face, now seeking, as do the Arab countries, an avenue for normalization as a solution to its problems, after the long years of military involvement in Syrian affairs, notably going after its Kurdish foes. Assad can now, apparently, more explicitly than before – in a series of trilateral talks at the level of high officials – demand the return home of all Turkish troops (and the dismantling of all the Turkey-supported proxies) as a precondition for any serious normalization with Turkey, knowing the Erdogan’s Turkey has since become a – or the – demandeur for normalization due to the untenable refugee situation inside Turkey and Turkey’s acute need for an honorable escape from its earlier adventurism.

On the Turkish side, in the prevailing electoral climate, the predominance of forces and expressions of anti-refugee nationalism has now, days before the second round of the presidential elections, made  both, or almost all, sides (including opposition leader Kilicdaroglu) commit to drastic demands as regards refugee returns to Syria.

For incumbent president Erdogan, this represents a huge political dilemma, first in the remaining days of campaigning and then as the confirmed leader. On the one hand there is the nationalist/conservative wave, in the parliament and in the population represented in the parliament, a wave largely founded in anti-refugee sentiment leading to radical pressure for massive returns. On the other, there is the link between the need to respond to this and the need to deal cleverly, diplomatically, with the wider Syria file, such that a normalization deal with a strengthened Assad regime, rather than through futile and internationally controversial military incursions, could be a means to solve both Turkey’s refugee (return) challenge and Turkey´s PKK/PYD/YPG problem. The political delicacy of this – as it involves cooperativeness from other relevant players such as Russia, Iran and, yes, the US, et al., – clearly militates against rushed, massive deportations of unwilling Syrian refugees of which many are now integrated components of the Turkish society.

On the other hand, similarly, it would appear to be politically inconceivable for Erdogan – in spite of pressure on him for a speedy solution to his refugee problem – to accept abstaining from his trump card, his military presence on north Syrian soil, as a first step in a sequence of accommodation steps with Assad for a broader normalization arrangement, in spite of pressure from Putin´s Russia. His preferred sequence would likely be first an agreement on a resettlement corridor along the border and a legitimization of a Turkish (or joint) military liquidation of the Kurdish “threat”, and then, possibly, a withdrawal of Turkish troops. Which Assad, a strengthened Assad now as full member of the Arab League, is less likely to consider seriously.

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So, in view of all these developments and complexities, where does this leave the army of Syrian refugees, in Syria, in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Germany, in Sweden, and elsewhere? Sadly, it seems their extreme suffering – excepting those now well integrated in new countries, without any hope nor perhaps wish to return – will last several years more before there are signs of dawn in the darkness of night. Still, the renewed international attention to their plight as a result of current political twists and turns might, at least, work to reinvigorate a multilateral consensus concerning a humanitarian imperative: the Syrian refugees must not be allowed to be forgotten and abandoned.

The author is ambassador, holds a Phd and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
The article is published in Consilio International 26/5 2023.