Turkey’s opening of Greek border plays into Assad’s hands
By opening the border to Greece for refugees, Turkey is doing the Syrian government a major favour.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, dozens of communities with people numbering in the hundreds of thousands — stricken people from formerly anti-government regions, such as al-Waer in Homs, east Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus — were relocated to Idlib province and neighbouring Jarabulus in Aleppo province.
At least 1.5 million Syrians fled to Idlib over the course of the conflict, though that figure is likely to be far higher because many of the displaced later moved on to Turkey.
In the years since and despite the many challenges, Idlib maintained its opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Its residents have grown increasingly accustomed to living free from the yoke of the Assad dictatorship and the paranoia and propaganda that goes with it.
As a result, reintegrating these belligerent millions of Syrians once the regime regained control of Idlib was always going to prove to be a major challenge: How do you convince people whose houses you’ve destroyed and family members you’ve killed to accept your rule? How, after years of bombings, chemical attacks and air strikes on the already displaced residents of Idlib, could such people be expected to embrace and readily return to living under Assad?
That was a major concern for Damascus only until Turkey opened its border to Greece at the end of February, allowing many Idlib residents to escape first to Turkey and then, potentially, to Europe. It means the Syrian government no longer must think about reintegrating many of the more than 3 million people who detest it.
This is part of a broader strategic move by Damascus.
There’s a very specific reason Assad chose to allow residents of opposition areas safe passage and refuge in Idlib and the northern fringes of Aleppo province and not, for example, the Lebanese, Jordanian or Iraqi border areas. It’s because the Assad regime knew that to pen in millions of people on the Turkish border would have a greater potential destabilising effect on Europe, Turkey and the West than on its neighbouring Arab countries (which Damascus probably calculated would refuse to resettle in their own countries).
In the past week, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees attempted crossing into Greece from Turkey, setting off a new diplomatic crisis for Athens and the wider European political hierarchy.
What’s clear is that the Assad government is not in the business of providing anything in terms of infrastructure or security for its own citizens.
It has a long history of using Syrian refugees and expats for its own gain. Even before the uprising and war, senior Syrian officials would tell journalists how the government wanted expats and overseas labourers to stay away because they provided important funds through repatriated cash to the struggling local economy. It also meant the regime didn’t have to meet their basic medical, education and housing needs.
As it became clearer that the regime was going to prevail in the war, in July 2019 it had apparently changed its tune with Assad taking to television to encourage Syrians to return home. When they did go back, however, thousands were promptly detained.
Idlib’s refugees aren’t the only element in the province that could present a major challenge to Europe and the Syrian regime. There are tens of thousands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Hurras al-Din, Islamic State (ISIS) cells and other fighters for whom there is nowhere to go if and when the regime, backed by Russian warplanes, regains full control of the province.
As recently as February, HTS commander Muhammad al-Jolani told the International Crisis Group: “I conditioned my pledge on the notion that we would not use Syria as a launching pad for external operations. Nor would we allow others to use it for such a purpose. I made clear that we would focus exclusively on our struggle against the Syrian regime and its allies in Syria.”
While HTS may or may not continue to fight the regime until it is forcibly removed from Idlib, where do its fighters go then? And the ISIS cells? They, potentially, may be heading for the Greek border in hopes of reaching mainland Europe from where they could be expected to plot further carnage.
While there is no evidence that extremists have recently attempted to reach Europe through the Turkish-Greek border, there are precedents. Terrorists responsible for major attacks in France and elsewhere used the migrant trail to get from ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq to the continent in 2015.
All this means that, while the Greek, European and Turkish governments argue and the watching world cries foul over the plight facing Idlib, in Damascus senior leaders are rubbing their hands together with glee. For them, the Idlib conflict has worked out well.