Displacement and Despair: The Turkish Invasion of Northeast Syria

In early October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched an invasion of northeast Syria after getting the “green light” from U.S. President Donald Trump in a late-night phone call. The offensive – ironically dubbed Operation Spring Peace – displaced more than 200,000 people and eviscerated a five-year partnership between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State. The Syrian militias serving as Turkey’s ground force have been accused of war crimes. Russia has replaced the United States as the key international powerbroker in northeast Syria, and the Syrian Kurds have turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection against Turkey.

A few weeks after Turkey crossed the border into Syria, Refugees International conducted a mission to the region to report on the crisis. The situation in northeast Syria is undeniably grim. However, the worst may be yet to come. Turkey now controls a 75-mile wide strip along the border. President Erdoğan has declared his intention to take control of a larger swath of Syrian territory—one that runs 20 miles deep and 300 miles along the Turkish border. In September, President Erdoğan told the UN General Assembly that he would use this zone to resettle between 1 and 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey – a vow he reiterated as recently as November 1.

Concern is growing that Erdoğan will make good on his promise to carry out what would be an exercise in demographic engineering. U.S. President Trump should of course push back hard against any such plan. He should also hold Erdoğan accountable for the humanitarian crisis that Turkey has created, along with the human rights abuses its forces and Syrian proxies appear to have committed in northeast Syria. If the Trump administration fails to act, then the U.S. Congress and others must do so.

Operation Spring Peace

Turkey had long threatened military action against the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the force that forms the backbone of the SDF. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for self-determination in Turkey for decades. The United States had sought to allay Turkish security concerns through joint U.S.-Turkish patrols along the border and even the destruction of SDF fortifications in those areas.

However, those efforts collapsed following the call between presidents Trump and Erdoğan on October 9. Shortly thereafter, Turkey commenced its offensive into northeast Syria with support from a loose constellation of Sunni Syrian Arab fighters. Known collectively as the Syrian National Army (SNA), these fighters include extremist elements with ties to jihadist organizations. The fighting has involved intensive Turkish air and artillery strikes against targets on border towns followed by a ground assault led by the SNA. As the attacks continued, reports of significant human rights violations and other abuses by advancing Turkish forces and their Syrian partners multiplied.

Under pressure, the SDF turned to the Assad regime for help, brokering a deal that allowed Syrian government forces to return to northeast Syria. Shortly thereafter, the United States managed to broker a ceasefire. Meanwhile, Erdoğan reached a deal with Russia—the Assad regime’s main backer—that called for Kurdish forces to withdraw 20 miles back from the border. Under the deal, Turkey keeps control of the area it seized, while Syrian government and Russian forces move into the remaining border areas from which the SDF has withdrawn. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols are monitoring these areas up to six miles from the frontier.

The Humanitarian Situation

More than 2 million people live in northeast Syria. Even before the Turkish offensive, the UN reported that 1.3 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and 700,000 were internally displaced. Since fighting began, over 215,000 people have been driven from their homes. While roughly half of these internally displaced people (IDPs) have returned, more than 100,000 people remained displaced, including tens of thousands of women and children.

The vast majority of the displaced are residing in host communities and shelters in Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir-ez-Zor governorates. They urgently need emergency shelter, distributions of food and non-food items, fuel, and water station repairs. The health sector is under extreme strain, as hospitals face staff and resource shortages and ambulances and mobile clinics are in high demand.

Despite various ceasefires, fighting continues in some pockets of the northeast. However, these hostilities have not yet triggered a new round of displacement. Indeed, IDP flows have begun to stabilize over the last few weeks. This is good news, as many of the areas currently providing sanctuary are struggling to keep up with the new arrivals. They would be hard pressed to accommodate additional IDPs. This is particularly true in Hasakah, where local leaders report that the city cannot absorb additional IDPs.

Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Prior to October 9, 2019, there were up to 130,000 IDPs living in 12 long-term camps or large informal settlements across northeast Syria. Those include the Al Hol camp in Hasakah, where some 70,000 displaced people—mostly the families of detained Islamic State fighters—have been residing. The Turkish offensive forced two of these IDP camps to close, driving residents to flee to other camps and sites. These secondary displacements put immense pressure on relief efforts for populations that had already been underserved for some time. Conditions in Al Hol camp were particularly grim, and tensions already running high.

International Humanitarian Actors Evacuate

The ability of the humanitarian community to respond to the crisis was significantly compromised in the opening days of the offensive. The intervention resulted in a nearly total—and completely predictable—evacuation of international humanitarian staff from northeast Syria. International NGOs sanitized their offices, destroying paperwork and other materials that could be used to identify beneficiaries or their local staff. The evacuation was made more urgent by the return of the Syrian army—Damascus considers international NGOs operating in the northeast to be illegal, and international staff feared arrest if they remained.

A handful of international relief workers have returned to northeast Syria. International NGOs have relaunched many of their activities through a system of remote management that places greater responsibility on Syrian staff. However, some of these local employees have themselves fled to Iraq out of concern that the regime would also target them. Standing in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, one such staff member told Refugees International that he had no choice but to flee: “Now the regime has returned to Rojava, so I can never go back. If I do, I will be arrested and disappeared because I have worked with internationals.”

Local Groups Step Up

In response, local aid and civil society groups are stepping up. Some of these local groups have had a long-standing presence in northeast Syria, undertaking relief and recovery efforts in the areas hardest hit by the Islamic State crisis. However, they have limited resources at their disposal. International aid workers told Refugees International that “Local groups now have only a few weeks of stock at most – and the humanitarian crisis is just beginning…”

In line with Refugees International’s long-standing and repeated recommendations, the international community should bolster the capacity of local civil society groups operating in the region. They are and will be on the frontline of the humanitarian response in the months and years to come–regardless of who controls the terrain. 

Refugees in Iraq

So far, some 14,000 refugees from northeast Syria have entered the Dohuk governorate of Iraq to seek refuge. They were first sent to Bardarash camp, which quickly reached capacity. New camps were opened nearby to shelter more refugees. Most refugees arrive with little more than the shirts on their backs. Nearly 75 percent of all registered refugees are women and children. Many of the children are traumatized and some arrive unaccompanied.

Most refugees with whom Refugees International spoke had fled bombardment by Turkish airplanes and artillery. One father spoke of how the Turkish shelling began in the middle of the night. He and his wife grabbed their five children and sped out of town under the cover of darkness. They sought shelter in a nearby village until it also came under fire. “That’s when we decided to make a run for the border.” That journey lasted a few days, culminating in an all-night walk into northern Iraq. Sitting on the floor of a tent with his entire family a few days later, the father told Refugees International how Syria could never be home again. “If the government of Syria comes, it will take revenge. If the Turks come, they will commit genocide… We are never going back.”

While the flow of refugees has stabilized, a new round of fighting is expected to push the total number closer to 50,000. In the worst-case scenario, international humanitarian workers say that number could surpass 100,000. However, Kurdish officials in Iraq believe the number of Syrian refugees could reach a quarter million. Prior to the October 2019 incursion, Dohuk governorate was already hosting more than 230,000 Syrian refugees and more than 700,000 internally displaced Iraqis. Local officials say they are already stretched to capacity.

If Turkey reopens its offensive, the United States and other donors should surge funding to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), international NGOs, and local authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that are responding to the refugee situation along the border with Syria.

Accusations of War Crimes and other Human Rights Violations

Syrian refugees, civil society activists, and human rights groups have accused the Turkish military and the Turkey-backed SNA of committing war crimes and other human rights violations over the course of the offensive. Furthermore, the Trump administration special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, stated that U.S. forces observed “several incidents which we consider war crimes” by Turkish forces during the recent attack on the Syrian Kurds.

The reported abuses have taken many forms. First, there have been summary executions of civilians and other forms of mistreatment of captives. One of the most egregious cases includes the SNA’s execution of the political leader Ms. Hevrin Khalaf of the Syria Future Party. Khalaf’s execution and footage of her mutilated body was captured on video. 

Second, there have been a number of reports of indiscriminate shelling of medical facilities in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad and of residential neighborhoods in Qamishli city, resulting in civilian casualties. Syrian refugees from Qamishli pointed to this shelling in explaining why they fled: “The shells landed on a neighbor’s house not far from our own. That’s when we ran.”

Third, there are reports of systematic looting and pillaging of homes, shops, and farms in population centers taken over by SNA forces. Refugees in Iraq told Refugees International that their homes and shops had been ransacked. Since fleeing, they had heard from contacts that the Syrian Arab militia had occupied their property. Such acts are violations of international law in and of themselves, and they also discourage civilian populations from returning home even once fighting has stopped.

Finally, Turkey is accused of using munitions containing white phosphorus against civilians in northern Syria. The use of such an incendiary weapon against civilians is prohibited by international law. Multiple media sources reported that the munitions were dropped in the border town of Ras al-Ayn, after images and video surfaced of civilians, including children, suffering gruesome burns associated with the chemical.

U.S. Sanctions against Turkey

Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria caused an international outcry. Coming under pressure for having given President Erdoğan the “green light,” the Trump administration countered by issuing sanctions on Turkey. However, it lifted those sanctions days later after helping to negotiate a ceasefire. In late October 2019, however, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with strong bipartisan support to sanction senior Turkish officials involved in the offensive. The bill also called for a cessation of U.S. military assistance to all Turkish units involved in the Syria campaign. The U.S. Senate has yet to take up the sanctions bill.

Congress should pass the existing sanctions bills against Turkey and clearly signal its intent to expand these sanctions if the Turkish army or its Syrian proxies renew their offensive in the northeast.

Turkey’s Plans to Resettle Syrian Refugees in the “Safe Zone”

Having taken control of the 75-mile strip of territory between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain, President Erdoğan announced that Turkey would establish a “refugee town or towns” where Syrian refugees could be resettled. He called for a donor conference to raise the $26 billion needed to finance the plan, even threatening to send Syrian refugees to European countries if EU funding was not forthcoming. The UN Secretary-General reportedly discussed these plans with President Erdoğan during a recent trip to Turkey, indicating that the UN would set up a special taskforce to look at the issue of returns to the “safe zone.”

Resettling large numbers of people in this way would violate international law. Moreover, it would significantly alter the ethnic landscape of northeast Syria. Only a small percentage of the refugee population in Turkey come from the northeast of the country. Any plan to send a relatively large number of Sunni Arab Syrians from other parts of the country to this region thus appears to be an attempt at demographic engineering.

Furthermore, it is not conceivable that such a move could be conducted in line with refugee and humanitarian law and core principles. To begin with, Turkey’s so-called “safe zone” is likely to be anything but. Fighting continues in the areas that Turkey recently occupied. Even if Turkey pacified the area, a massive influx of Sunni Arab refugees would stoke enduring antagonism between Arab and Kurdish populations and undermine stability in the longer term.

Most of the Sunni Arab Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey sought to escape the Assad regime. With Assad’s forces having moved back into the northeast since the United States’ withdrawal – and certain to operate in close proximity to any Turkish “safe zone” – refugees understandably are fearful about going back. Indeed, they expect a “massive campaign of arrests” to accompany the regime’s return.

In short, Erdoğan’s plan would cause significant instability and humanitarian suffering. Furthermore, the precedent it would set for other refugee host countries in the region—or in Africa or Latin America for that matter—could constitute a significant threat to the international refugee regime. American officials in the region told Refugees International that they believe President Erdoğan intends to carry out this plan. He must be convinced not to move forward. If the Trump administration fails to do so, it is incumbent upon the U.S. Congress, United Nations member states, and other donors to act.


  • Pass existing sanction legislation against Turkey and expand these sanctions if Turkey resumes its offensive. The U.S. Congress should pass the existing sanctions bills against Turkey and clearly signal its intention to expand these sanctions if the Turkish army or its Syrian proxies renew their offensive in the northeast.
  • Launch an independent international investigation into war crimes. The United States and the United Nations should push to hold Turkey accountable for abuses committed by its forces and those of its Syrian proxies over the course of Operation Spring Peace. One option would be for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, mandated to investigate human rights violations in Syria, to open an investigation into reports of war crimes, human rights abuses, and other violations of international humanitarian law during the offensive.
  • Increase humanitarian support to local NGOs. In line with Refugees International’s long-standing and repeated recommendations, the international community should bolster the capacity of local civil society groups operating in the region. They are and will be on the frontline of the humanitarian response for months to come, regardless of who controls the terrain. 
  • Prepare to surge resources for refugees in northern Iraq. If Turkey reopens its offensive, the United States and other donors should surge funding to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), international NGOs, and local authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that are responding to the refugee situation along the border with Syria.
  • Push back against Turkish efforts to resettle refugees from other parts of Syria in the buffer zone. The United Nations and international donors should not fund or otherwise facilitate any return of Syrian refugees to Turkish-controlled areas that is not conducted strictly in line with humanitarian principles. The international community should categorically refuse to aid or abet demographic engineering in northeast Syria.
  • Resettle Syrian refugees in the United States. The Trump administration should expand resettlement of Syrian refugees to include those recently forced to flee by the Turkish offensive. In addition, refugees who have worked for international humanitarian NGOs in the northeast and who are now under threat should have access to U.S. resettlement. Congress has the legislative authority to raise the unprecedentedly low fiscal year 2020 refugee ceiling of 18,000 recently set by President Trump. At minimum, it should legislate an increase to accommodate these Syrians.