Human rights organizations say they are preparing for a long-lasting displacement of civilians in northeastern Syria as a result of a military operation by Turkey and its aligned Syrian militants against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
The new Turkish offensive into Syria on Wednesday started after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision Sunday to withdraw U.S. troops from the region.
As the Turkish government on Thursday said its military pushed deeper into the region in its operation, humanitarian agency Care International told VOA that approximately 90,000 people have become internally displaced since its beginning on Wednesday.
“Following the launch of a new military operation in the area, civilians in northeast Syria are at high risk,” said Fatima Azzeh, the senior regional communications manager for the Syria crisis at Care International.
“Reports from responders on the ground say civilians are already on the move and some vital services, such as medical facilities and water supplies, have been interrupted,” Azzeh said, adding that thousands more civilians are expected to leave the area in coming days.
The new wave of violence has forced several aid agencies to ask their staffs to evacuate the area with their families.
“This would cause further vulnerability and increased reliance on humanitarian aid, which the international community is not in a position to provide,” she said.
Turkish officials say their military operation, code named Operation Peace Spring, is to pursue a Kurdish armed group known as the Peoples’ Protection Units or the YPG. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization — alleging that the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK.
The United States, however, considers the YPG a key ally, and it became the main local ground force to remove Islamic State (IS) from a wide range of Syrian territory, including the self-proclaimed IS capital, Raqqa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that in addition to pursuing YPG fighters, his government in northern Syria will take charge of nearly 10,000 IS fighters who are currently held in Kurdish prisons and establish a safe zone to return millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey.
Warning to Europe
Responding to a demand by the European Union to cease the offensive, Erdogan on Thursday threatened to open Turkey’s door to allow the Syrian refugees to flood Europe.
“Hey, European Union, pull yourself together. If you try to label this operation as an occupation, it is very simple: we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Erdogan said in a speech to ruling party officials in Ankara.
Kurds consider Turkey’s refugee transfer plan an attempt to change the demographic balance of the region by moving large numbers of Sunni Arab Syrians into a traditionally Kurdish heartland.
The conflict in Syria broke out in 2011 following a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The United Nations estimates nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced, with an estimated 6.6 million refugees fleeing the country.
Demographic shifts, displacements
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in a statement Thursday, said Turkey’s scale-up of the operation in northeast Syria also could cause mass displacement of vulnerable populations that already have been displaced multiple times by conflict and live in camps. It warned that the campaign could lead to insecurity and chaos, which could create circumstances for the resurgence of IS.
“The last thing Syrians need now is a new wave of violence,” the commission said.
Amnesty International told VOA that roughly 700,000 people within the region have fled war from other Syrian areas and depend on U.N. aid and assistance from other humanitarian organizations for their basic needs. Another million local residents could be gravely affected by the conflict.
“When [Islamic State] took over large swaths of Syria and sent many religious minority communities from other parts of Syria, and in addition to tens of thousands of just regular civilians who were terrified of living under ISIS, they fled into this part of Syria feeling like it was a safe area for them to be in,” said Philippe Nassif, the human rights group’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“So, what’s happening is with the Turkish incursion you’ve got a very large population of internally displaced people and civilians that were already living in this part of Syria, many of them Kurdish, who are now beginning to flee the currently ongoing Turkish intervention,” Nassif told VOA.
Even after Turkey’s operation, Nassif charged that a second phase of humanitarian crisis likely will unfold as the Turkish government tries to implement its so-called safe zone. “You’re going to eventually see this idea of Turkey sending a whole bunch of Syrian refugees from Turkey and resettling them into these newly captured areas.”
“Assuming that happens, they’re going to need humanitarian support and assistance as well. So, you have a second crisis in the future that will result from the current crisis that we’re experiencing right now,” he added.