Syrian opposition gathers around Turkish border
While all eyes are on a possible U.S. military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime, recent developments in Eastern Ghouta, just near the capital Damascus, suggest that the Syrian civil war that broke out in 2011 is taking a critical turn.
While evacuations from Eastern Ghouta continue, on April 11, for the first time in years, the Syrian flag was raised on a mosque that had been used as a “council center” by Syrian opposition forces. This act symbolized that the region that had been held by the opposition groups are now under control of the Assad regime.
These developments concern Turkey and its position in the Syrian equation.
Armed opposition groups and their families leaving Eastern Ghouta are not disappearing into the ether; they are not going to another country. They are only changing locations; they are being transferred to other places inside Syria.
Currently, their primary destination is the Idlib region that has been under the responsibility of Turkey since the Astana process, and the other destination is the region where Turkey carried out Operation Euphrates Shield. For instance, in the early hours of April 12, the convoy that departed from Eastern Ghouta is headed toward al-Bab, which is located within the vicinity of Operation Euphrates Shield.
Almost every midnight, most of the bus convoys that depart Eastern Ghouta head toward Idlib. A few of those convoys travel to al-Bab, 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border, and Jarablus, just across the Turkish town of Karkamış of the Gaziantep province. There have been reports that a limited number of groups are also going to Afrin.
A five-page April 11 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on the situation in northwest Syria provides numbers regarding this traffic running from Eastern Ghouta toward the northern parts of the country.
According to the report, since mid-March, a total of 55,817 people were displaced from Eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus and the Al-Qadam neighborhood in the Damascus city to northwestern Syria and northern rural Aleppo following agreements between the government of Syria and the non-state armed groups. Some 48,422 of those travelled to Idlib on 18 buses, while the remaining 7,395 to the Euphrates Shield areas. These numbers did not include the evacuation that took place in the following two days.
The report notes that there are an estimated 78,000 – 150,000 individuals who remain besieged in Eastern Ghouta and that more displacement to northern Syria is likely to happen in the coming days. The report also predicts the displacement of “scores of fighters and civilians” to the Euphrates Shield areas and that the number of total displaced people may reach 48,000.
Let us look at a much larger number now. The U.N. said that as of February, 1.2 million people were displaced in Idlib well before the recent displacements. The February figures point to a 25 percent increase compared to eight months ago.
This trend suggests that as the war is nearing an end jihadist groups based around Damascus as well as Hama and Homs, which are located between Damascus and Aleppo, are likely to move toward Syria’s north in the coming weeks and months.
Given this picture, this is the conclusion we can draw: Idlib and the Euphrates Shield areas that are adjacent to the Turkish provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis are becoming shelters for members of armed opposition groups with jihadist leanings and their families that run away or evacuated from the areas which have fallen to the control of the Assad regime’s forces.
The Assad regime will be pleased to see that jihadist opposition groups that are based in central and southern Syria move north to the Turkish border. The Assad regime will also be pleased to see changes in the demographic structure, because those groups will cease to pose a threat to the Assad regime.
But what does these groups gathering close to the border mean for Turkey? What can this situation create potential problems in the future? I will answer those questions in my next piece.