For months, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Turkish presidential candidate who hopes this Sunday finally to unseat Recep Tayyip Erodgan, has vowed to send home millions of Syrians. Even after the first vote in mid-May suggested not quite enough Turks were buying the rhetoric, he returned to his anti-migrant theme.
“I am announcing it here,” he said the week after the election, “As soon as I come to power, I will send [10 million] refugees home. Period.”
Even while he was giving that speech, in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad was preparing to fly to Riyadh, where Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, a sign of impending normalization.
Viewed from Europe, the return of Assad to the Middle East fold has multiple facets. But perhaps the most concerning is how it has reopened the question of Syrian refugees. Coupled with the increased anti-migrant rhetoric as the Turkish election drew to a close, those two days in May have reopened what many in Europe hoped would be a permanently frozen issue.
The return of Assad and the beginning of a path to normalization don’t mean that the refugee issue will be immediately back on the table. But part of the reason Arab countries, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, were interested in exploring normalization was that their countries are straining under the weight of so many refugees.
The hope in Middle Eastern capitals is that Assad inside the tent might bring about a solution that would allow some Syrians to go home, thereby easing the burden.
Viewed from Europe, though, it means the weaponization of refugees is, once again, an option.
Refugees forced out?
Certainly that is how Kilicdaroglu sees the Syrians within Turkey’s borders. The number Kilicdaroglu quoted was perhaps exaggerated – the official number of Syrian refugees registered in the country is 3.6 million, although there are likely to be many thousands more unregistered. But what his candidacy did was drag the issue of Syrian refugees back to the very center of political conversation.
It’s often unremarked in the media quite how forceful Kilicdaroglu’s proposed policy toward Syrian refugees would be. He said he would normalize with Assad and immediately sign a deal that would send millions of Syrians back.
And this return would not be voluntary, in the way Erdogan has proposed. It would be a forced deportation, within two years – something that remains illegal under international law.
More concerning, though, to European capitals is his suggestion that he would demand further funds from the EU to pay for the return of Syrians.
Some of what Kilicdaroglu was saying was, of course, political rhetoric designed to win an election. And when on Tuesday the third-placed presidential candidate Sinan Ogan was pictured shaking hands with and endorsing Erdogan, it certainly seems unlikely that Kilicdaroglu will get the chance to enact his policies.
Ogan came third in the presidential election with just over 5% of the vote; if only some of his supporters turn out for Erdogan on Sunday, the incumbent is likely to win.
But for Europe, that won’t be Kilicdaroglu’s legacy. Erdogan is not a man who has repeatedly won by not sensing which way the political wind is blowing. If Kilicdaroglu could get nearly 45% of the vote on such a staunchly anti-Syrian platform, then perhaps, he or his advisers will calculate, there may be more negotiation room with the European Union.
Perhaps the 2016 deal with Brussels – which gave Ankara €6 billion in return for stopping migrants crossing its territory into the EU – could be renegotiated, as Kilicdaroglu had suggested.
Neither the renegotiation of the deal nor the weaponization of refugees will happen overnight, if at all. But what the return of Assad and the Turkish election have done is create the conditions for new developments. And people in desperate situations do not wait for events to overtake them.
For Turkish politicians even to talk about forcibly deporting refugees, or the return of Assad presaging more pressure for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, creates a collective hostile environment. And this is where Europe most needs to be concerned. Because those refugees pushed out of the Middle East will not all go back to Syria.
Certainly some will. But 6 million Syrians have not spent years displaced by choice; they desperately fear what might be waiting for them in Syria, and, inevitably, they will do anything possible to avoid that fate. Which means only one thing: a journey to Europe.
This is the political danger behind the hope that millions of refugees could just stay frozen in limbo for years on end. Part of why the Middle East finally agreed to normalize with Assad was that the costs of inaction had simply become too great. And as the February earthquakes proved, as much as there are unexpected political events, there are also unexpected “acts of God.”
The longer the limbo of Syrians continued, the more likely it was that something would come along to disrupt it and begin another mass movement of people. Now, that day has arrived.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Follow him on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai.