Turkey's 3.5 million Syrian refugees have turned into a playball of domestic politics — amid Turkey's soaring inflation rate, economic freefall and upcoming elections in 2023.
Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan proposed to encourage Syrian refugees to return voluntarily to allegedly "safe" Turkish-controlled zones in Syria.
However, despite highlighting the intended well-being of the refugees, some critics argue that Erdogan's true intentions are somewhat different.
"His primary goal is to manage the domestic anti-refugee sentiment which is a major factor for voters in the upcoming polls," Guney Yildiz, a Turkey expert and PhD researcher at Cambridge University, told DW.
Furthermore, the proposed "safe zone" in Idlib is far from being as safe as Erdogan outlined.
International observers still report shelling by Russia, an ally of the Assad-regime.
Idlib's "safe zone" has already become a magnet for internally displaced Syrians, as humanitarian aid is brought in on a regular basis. Unconfirmed reports refer to 5 million people who are crowded in an area meant for only 1 million.
Following 11 years of civil war, the overall situation in Syria has become dire enough that this figure could well be correct.
According to the UN, around 14.6 million people — including 6.5 million children — are in need of aid, a number that reflects the COVID-19 pandemic, turbulences of the global economy, sanctions, and the war in Ukraine which sent food prices soaring.
Also, a donor conference last week brought in only $6.7 billion (€6.3 billion), which is well below the amount of $10.5 billion the UN had hoped for.
In July, the situation might be even further exacerbated: Russia already announced that it will oppose the renewal of the UN-backed resolution that authorises humanitarian aid via Turkey.
Far from voluntary
Meanwhile, in Turkey, there are doubts over how "voluntary" the proposed returns actually are.
For instance, Ahmed, a 25-year-old Syrian who is not using his real name out of fear for recrimination, told DW that he was forcibly taken to Syria's city of Afrin on May 10 after police in Istanbul forced him to sign papers of a voluntary return.
Ahmed's offense: He travelled from Marash to Istanbul without a valid travel permission for refugees.
Other Syrian refugees in Turkey are also increasingly scared.
For example, 24-year-old Muhammad, who also doesn't want to use his real name, has been in Turkey for two years. He is now worried that he could get deported. "My house near Damascus is under control of the Assad regime, I'm afraid that if I have to go back, I could get arrested immediately," he told DW.
Mona, who is also using a different name, is a 35-year-old mother who came to Turkey in 2017. She hopes to obtain Turkish citizenship and to stay in Iskenderun for good. "My two children learn Turkish at school, and my husband works in construction. The past five years were good and stable, but now, after hearing about the relocation plans, we are very worried again," she told DW.
According to the UN, around 81.000 returns from Turkey to Syria have been verified since 2019, a number that is in stark contrast to the figure of 500,000 returnees given by the Turkish Ministry of Interior in March this year.
Boosting Turkey's influence
And yet, Erdogan's proposal to return Syrians to Syria is not actually new but a revamped earlier plan.
Since 2019, Turkey has been building around 50,000 houses in Turkish-controlled regions in Syria's north.
By the end of this year, Turkey aims for 100,000 houses, as well as schools, hospitals and general business infrastructure in Idlib and beyond.
However, the nearby area — which is not under Turkish control — is by far no no-man's land either.
As a result of the still ongoing civil war, Syria's north has been divided into a 30km-buffer zone between Syria's and Turkey's border, and the Turkish-controlled areas that border the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
"The Turkish government has long sought to push back the Kurdish-led administrations by frequent aerial and artillery assaults," Yildiz told DW.
Since the relocation plans also include areas such as Afrin, Ras al-Ayn, and the territories surrounding them that have many Kurdish villages, "this will precipitate a significant demographic shift," Yildiz explained.
His view is echoed by Salam Said, policy adviser at the political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin.
"Turkey invaded north-east Syria in 2016 and has since been putting pressure on the Kurds who live there. Now, if Erdogan was able to settle around a million predominantly Arab Syrians there, it would be a heavy blow for the Kurdish Syrians in the region," she told DW.
For Turkey however, expanding Turkish-controlled zones in Syria would have another major benefit: A new economic hub in Syria.
The Turkish government's relocation plan includes building small industrial zones that will provide workplaces, Yildiz told DW.
"However, it is obvious that these regions are economically linked to Turkey and that the people there are entirely reliant on it," he added.
In turn, this might give Turkey a boost of control over all political, social, and economic issues in the region.
Refugees as playball
For the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Turkey's relocation plans amount to "ethnic cleansing."
According to Syria's official news agency Sana, the country's Foreign Ministry issued a statement last Friday that accused Turkey of "ethnic cleansing" in Syria's north-east and highlighted "that the despicable bargains made and carried out by the Turkish regime show the lack of the minimum level of political and moral understanding to deal with the crisis in Syria."
However, those who would return from Turkey wouldn't be welcomed back by the regime either as for the most part, they are not Assad supporters , Syria expert Carsten Wieland, a former adviser to the United Nations, told DW.
At the same time, Wieland also thinks it is very unlikely that the Syrian regime will be able to control the north again.
Yet if Turkey tried to annex further territories in Syria's north, "Assad would immediately pillory Turkey," Wieland adds.
"In this respect, the Syrian regime's position is more than hypocritical. While the regime has to blame itself for the current situation, it is now faced with the ruins of its own policies, and the brutality with which it crushed the uprising."
Omar Albam in Idlib contributed to this report.
Edited by Andreas Illmer