UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appeared to back a Turkish plan to settle millions of mostly Arab refugees from other parts of Syria in an area where more than 180,000 Kurds had been forced to flee in recent weeks. The UN leader thanked Turkey for its strong cooperation and support and agreed to form a team to study Turkey’s proposal and engage with Turkey. The UN’s news service put out a statement amenable to Turkey’s plan and seeking to study it.
In the discussions the UN chief did not critique Turkey’s October military offensive which has led to human rights violations, including extrajudicial assassinations and videos of executions of prisoners by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. The UN also did not say the 180,000 civilians, which its own experts have recorded fleeing, have a right to return to their homes in northern Syria. Instead, the UN now is studying how to implement a Turkish occupation of northern Syria and how to work with Ankara on a “safe zone.” The UNHCR, which is supposed to ensure the right of the 180,000 people forced to flee by Turkey’s offensive, will now be asked to study the proposal to replace them with 3.6 million other Syrian refugees who live in Turkey.
It now appears that NATO, the UN, Russia and other world powers will work to prevent the return of people who fled Turkey’s offensive and to settle others in their place, with the imprimatur of UN approval. NATO has supported Turkey’s offensive, claiming security concerns make it acceptable, asking only for restraint from Ankara. So far restraint has meant hundreds of thousands of people have become homeless in three weeks.
Turkey and its proxies now occupy a swath of northern Syria including Afrin where 160,000 Kurds were expelled in 2018, and Idlib where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was living, and Jarabulus. Turkey doesn’t week to settle Syrian refugees in those areas, it only wants to send refugees from other parts of Syria to areas where Kurds live, using Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups to cleanse the land first before resettlement occurs. Ankara calls this a “safe zone,” but for the 300,000 people who have fled the fighting, it has not been safe. Reports in media describe executions and attacks on civilians. The US has helped Turkey achieve its goal by opening the airspace to a Turkish offensive and working to exclude Kurds from the UN-backed Geneva process for Syria’s constitution. The US excluded its own Syrian Democratic Forces, a group the US helped create in 2015, from Geneva and has excluded other Kurdish groups in eastern Syria from participating. The UN, Turkey, Russia and others have also made sure to exclude representatives of the Kurdish minority in eastern Syria from participating. Russia embarked on joint patrols in eastern Syria with Turkey over the last days. Kurdish youth threw stones at the Turkish military vehicles, protesting the military occupation.
The UN study of Ankara’s plan to settle eastern Syria may be the first time that the UN has actively worked to resettle people from a country in an area they are not from while ensuring that people who fled have no ability to return to their homes. Kurds and their supporters have said this amounts to ethnic-cleansing. If that is the case the UN may be aiding in ethnic cleansing, a major departure from the usual UN mandate. In other instances the UN has generally opposed war and invasions as a way to solve issues, and has supported refugees and their rights to return. However, Turkey’s invasion of norther Syria, which was proposed at the UN General Assembly in September, has received support now from the UN Secretary General. The Syrian government, authorities in eastern Syria, and local people expelled from their homes have no say in the UN’s decision to study Turkey’s proposal and the UN Secretary General has never met with people from eastern Syria who lost their homes in the recent invasion.
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