The new Aleppo refugee crisis
As government forces are moving in on Aleppo, thousands of Aleppines are fleeing toward the Turkish border. Officially they are fleeing because of intense Russian bombardments and street fighting. For many this could ideed be true. But others are terrified by a threat worse than bombs: Assad's vengeance.
All Aleppines who collaborated with the insurgents during the period they controlled most of the city are likely to be persecuted, once the government has re-established control over the city, that's for sure. Which means all citizens suspected of being members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood or being Salafists have reason to fear for their lives.
Assad has shown his determination to crush all Sunni Islamist movements spawned by the Brotherhood by killing or expelling members, their families and supporters. Which means trying to get rid of many of the Sunni Muslims who constitute the majority population, a strategy close to genocide, which a recent UN report called a "state policy of extermination of the civilian population."
It is true that Assad is conducting a war against his own population. His father already demonstrated the intention to eliminate all Islamism (political Islam) in Syria, tolerating only those Sunni citizen who refrain from practicing Islamism. In fact, many Sunnis actively support the Assad regime.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently closed the borders with Syria and Iraq. Both Iraqis and Syrians have to apply for visa before presenting themselves at the border or at the airport.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Turkey maintained an open border policy, accepting an estimated 3 million Syrians as official and unregistered refugees. There were several reasons why Turkey accepted these people. The border was originally porous and still is, to some extent. Many of the first arriving Syrians were rich: they bought real estate and drove up prices in the border region.
Later arrivals showed that the Assad regime proved surprisingly resilient: the refugees were a pawn in Erdoğan's hands who not only wanted to topple Assad but ensure that the new Syria would be ruled over by Sunni Islamists of the Brotherhood stamp.
When despite Turkey's full barrel support the Islamists failed to achieve victory, the millions of refugees – with another half million of Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians added – proved increasingly burdensome for Turkey. The mass migration across the Agaeian Sea to Greece was a mixed blessing: the affluent and with an average of 40 percent literacy best educated Syrians left – mostly young men. The largely uneducated (93 percent illiteracy) rest, consisting mainly of women, children and old people, remained in Turkey and posed a heavy burden on the society and the local governments.
Now that Assad's part of Syria has become a fearsome Russian protectorate and colony, Turkey's position is desperate. Hundreds of thousands more Syrians could stream to the Turkish border if Aleppo falls to the government forces. The much talked-about possibility of a Turkish military intervention in Syria would be dicy. The Russians and their allies would probably make mincemeat out of the Turkish military which has shown its ineptitude in many years of a futile campaign against the small and outgunned Kurdish insurgents.
Furthermore, the heavy influx of refugees has, in recent years, changed the demographic balance in Turkey's border provinces, especially in Hatay. Since World War I, Syria had in vain claimed these provinces, It is quite possible that the population majority in Hatay is now (again) Syrian which means Assad could claim the province if Turkey is defeated by a Russian-led coalition.
Recognizing the danger of the shifting demography for Turkey's territorial integrity was probably the main factor forcing Erdogan to stop admitting Syrians. As a stopgap operation he revived the plan of creating a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border to accommodate the new refugees (and keep the Russians at bay). Also, the zone could in Turkish view serve its original purpose of preventing the Kurdish YPG forces from creating a land bridge between their largest “cantons”.
However, Mr Assad does not like the project of a safe zone which he understands as an effort of the Turks of creating a colony along the border dominated by their ethnic brothers, the Turkmen tribe.
It is likely that a small strip outside the Bab-as Salaam border station will hence mushroom into one of the world's largest makeshift refugee camp, housing most of Aleppo's residual population waiting for a peace settlement unlikely to come.