Following the American withdrawal to the north-east of Syria, followed by the Turkish army attack on 9 October, what is the situation facing humanitarian aid workers?
This offensive has resulted in further deaths and injuries, extensive destruction of infrastructure and forced displacement of some 200,000 Syrians. With these additional jihadists, Turkey has seized a territory 120 km by 30 km. Since the agreement between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi on 22 October, Kurdish forces and their Christian and Arab allies have been forced to withdraw 30 km from the border to prevent the Turkish army from continuing its advance.
Let us not forget that this region of 3 million inhabitants already had 710,000 displaced persons and 1.8 million people in need of assistance. Between 9 and 22 October, humanitarian aid was able to continue despite a decrease. It is now improving, thanks in particular to the involvement of United Nations agencies (WFP, UNICEF, OCHA, etc.) and the ICRC. But, does this mean that this situation will continue or even improve?
A lull that cannot last.
Nothing is less certain. There are still two large areas beyond Damascus’ control. The Idlib region and the north-east where there is a limited return of troops from the Syrian army and the administration, especially since the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces control part of this territory. In addition, fighting is constant in the Idlib region, where there are reportedly 20 to 25,000 jihadist fighters and where Turkey has fortified observation points. So the war is not over.
The dilemma for humanitarian workers is simple. So far, the Damascus regime has never allowed NGOs to be able to provide assistance in the areas it controls and, at the same time, in the areas it does not control. To obtain permission from Damascus, NGOs operating in Idlib or in the north-east would have to interrupt their assistance in these regions of Syria. This is not in accordance with their principles as well as with International Humanitarian Law. In general, humanitarian actors intervene wherever there are urgent needs, on both sides of the front lines.
What dilemma for humanitarian workers?
Without prejudging what is going to happen, however, we can consider two hypotheses that we may face in order to predict what we should do.
In the first case, the Damascus regime is gradually regaining control of the northeast and removing humanitarian NGOs that have been providing relief to residents from Iraq for years. What would then be the consequences for the populations receiving this relief? And what would be the attitude of the United Nations, the States concerned and other humanitarian actors who would not be affected by these prohibitions on humanitarian action imposed on recognized, neutral, impartial and independent NGOs?
In the second case envisaged, Turkey, taking advantage of the circumstances, launched a new attack to repel the Kurds and Christians once again from their entire settlement area, also known as the Rojava. This is not a point of view, it is a potential threat.
This assumption is stated in a letter in the statement of the International Anti-Daech Coalition, which includes more than 30 countries, in a ministerial communiqué issued on 14 November in Washington at the end of a summit meeting. Point 8 of this declaration states: “We urge all actors in northeastern Syria to refrain from any measures that could change the demographic structure in this region”. It could not be clearer and it is a real risk. The one that could be described as the “ethnic cleansing” of Kurds and Christians.
And since the Turkish President recently stated that he wanted to send back Syrian refugees, he might be tempted to replace the original populations with these Syrian refugees supervised by the jihadist groups he arms and pays for.
The responsibility of the United Nations, the States, but also the humanitarian community.
In such a case, what would the United Nations Security Council do? This is an opportunity to recall that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops attacked the Iraqi Kurds during the first Gulf War in 1991. We remember that hundreds of thousands of Kurds took refuge in disaster along the Turkish border!
It was then decided to create a no-fly zone for Iraqi aviation in the north to protect the Kurds and in the south to protect the Shiites in the rising Basra region. We also recall the United Nations Resolution 688 adopted by France at the initiative of Bernard Kouchner and Dean Mario Bettati and signed on 5 April 1991 to create a “protection zone” for 3 to 4 million Kurds in an area of 74,000 km2.
In the event of “ethnic cleansing” in northeastern Syria, what would humanitarian actors do then? It should be recalled that the return of refugees presupposes that they can do so freely and safely. Returning means going home, often to where you were born among your family. This free and secure return should be one of the conditions for a political solution in Syria.
The International Anti-Daech Coalition is now facing its responsibilities, as is NATO, which will meet in London in early December and of which Turkey is a member. Similarly, the new Institutional Commission, which brings together 150 members representing the Damascus regime and the opposition, could take up this subject. It met for the first time on 30 October under the chairmanship of Geir Pedersen representing Antonio Guterres.
While these two hypotheses are not certain, they are nevertheless very possible because the current situation will not last. We can also imagine an exchange of territories between Damascus and Ankara with Moscow’s blessing. Damascus taking back control of Idlib and jihadist groups will take control of the Northeast under the aegis of Turkey.
Humanitarian workers will not be exempted from positioning themselves. Will they do so in accordance with their principles? They have an appointment with themselves and their choice will have consequences for the future humanitarian aid, while 11.7 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance to live.