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Why Syria's Kurds and HTS are offering to host refugees

Why Syria's Kurds and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are offering to host refugees
6 min read
31 May, 2023
Analysis: As regional normalisation with Assad accelerates, Syria's two most powerful non-regime groups are offering to resettle refugees as part of a bid for leverage and legitimacy.

The two most powerful armed, non-regime groups in Syria have made separate proposals to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in the Middle East in their respective territories.

These proposals are not insignificant since the two groups currently hold the vast majority of Syrian territory outside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control.

On 28 April, the ‘Political Affairs Administration’ and the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group controlling Syria's northwestern Idlib province expressed their readiness to host Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon and currently facing increased risk of deportation.

Ten days earlier, a declaration drawn up by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) became public. In it, the AANES suggested a way forward for negotiating with Damascus and ending the Syrian crisis once and for all.

The declaration also said the AANES is ready to host displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees currently residing in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The AANES, as its name makes clear, administers large parts of northeast and east Syria, roughly one-third of the country, including most of its natural resources. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting force controls the area and has long cooperated with the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS). It is much larger, albeit more sparsely populated, than Idlib.

The AANES/SDF and HTS are two very different groups. HTS was originally an al-Qaeda offshoot before splitting and focusing on establishing its own 'emirate' in Idlib and the surrounding areas.

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HTS primarily fought against Assad's forces and other rival armed groups throughout the civil war. The SDF, on the other hand, has predominantly focused on combating IS. However, it has also fought Turkey and its Syrian proxy groups during intermittent Turkish cross-border incursions against its forces.

"The effort by both HTS and the leadership of AANES to announce their readiness to take in refugees is driven largely by fear of being steamrolled by the rapidly evolving normalisation process between Damascus and its neighbours," Joshua Landis, director of both the Center of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Arabian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab.

As Turkey and the Arab countries open negotiations with Assad, the refugee issue has become a front-and-centre issue.

"All of Syria's neighbours as well as a number of Gulf countries, want to send Syrian refugees back to Syria," Landis said. "They are demanding that Assad take them back and claiming that they will help him in the reconstruction of Syria in order to make the prospect of return acceptable to more refugees."

The AANES administers large parts of northeast and east Syria, roughly one-third of the country, including most of its natural resources. [Getty]

Assad is unlikely to welcome parallel initiatives by either the AANES or HTS. He has long insisted on fully re-establishing complete control over Syria and expelling American and Turkish forces. The US has an estimated 900 troops in eastern Syria. Turkey has soldiers stationed in Idlib and other enclaves along northern Syria's border regions captured in various operations since 2016, most of them against the SDF.

Assad's unwavering goal to ultimately re-establish his hold over all these areas is "a scary prospect" for the AANES and HTS alike.

"To counter Assad's efforts, the leaders of both northeast and northwest Syria are making counter offers to Turkey," Landis said. "They do not want to be delegitimised in the eyes of the international community or the Arab states or Turkey."

But despite these obstacles, several logistical issues would complicate resettling even a fraction of the millions of Syrian refugees residing in regional countries.

For years, Idlib has been overcrowded with millions of displaced Syrians who fled en masse from regime bombardments and other violence elsewhere in the country. Sustaining that population is already immensely difficult, with the province long on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

"Neither northeast nor northwestern Syria can sustain more refugees," Landis said. "Northwest Syria is awash in refugees, many of whom continue to live in tents and temporary housing of all kinds."

While the situation in the AANES regions is less dire in some ways, it certainly is not much better.

"One key immediate advantage of AANES territory over HTS territory is that the AANES is unlikely to see a wide-scale Syrian government offensive," Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told The New Arab.

"However, it is a threat of a possible Turkish offensive, which again undermines the attractiveness for refugees to move there," he said.

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The SDF and affiliated internal security forces have struggled to secure the sprawling al-Hol camp housing thousands of IS widows and their children. They are constantly on alert for sleeper cell attacks. A coordinated IS prison break in Hasakah in January 2022, which led to over a week of violent fighting, underscored the lingering threat posed by these IS cells.

"In theory, AANES territory is safer than regime-held territory, but that's only if Syrian government forces can't operate there," Bohl said. "As soon as Syrian forces enter the northeast at scale, refugees would likely be subject to conscription, arrest, harassment, etc., from Damascus."

At the same time, AANES territory can only be secured in the long term through some deal with Damascus.

"That deal will almost certainly invite in security forces and will undermine the attractiveness of the northeast for the millions of refugees still living abroad," Bohl said.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham expressed their readiness to host Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon and currently facing increased risk of deportation. [Getty]

Even if all these obstacles disappear overnight, the AANES and HTS would require significant support from foreign powers. But it's unclear if the international community would be willing to provide a fraction of the financial and political support needed.

"There would be some international willingness to support resettlement but only if resettlement was seen as a viable prospect for the long term," Bohl said. "It's very hard to see the EU or United Nations getting behind a resettlement process in the northeast without a political situation that ends the threat of future Syrian government attacks that might cause them to flee again."

Then there is the physical infrastructure that would need to be built to accommodate an influx of millions of refugees. After all, much of Syria remains in ruins.

"It would take considerable infrastructure investments by outside countries like Turkey and potentially the Gulf Arabs to ensure that there are enough facilities and beds for these refugees for the process to substantially ease the number of Syrians living abroad," Bohl said.

"Constructing such housing at scale could be complicated by the US sanctions regime if whatever deal the AANES cuts with Damascus doesn't satisfy Washington's requirements for political reconciliation to lift sanctions."

In the end, most Syrian refugees will likely remain hesitant to return to their country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether to areas controlled by Assad, the AANES, or HTS.

"Syria is so poor and troubled that most refugees do not want to return until the situation improves dramatically," Landis said.

"In the meantime, all three competing leaderships are promising the moon in the hopes of gaining legitimacy and leverage. Their ability to deliver, however, is minimal."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon