You meet the horror stories from the Syrian War on distant ground, often far removed from the scene of the crime. The Times reporters found survivors of the April 7 attack—3,000 in all—about 200 miles from Douma in northern Syria at a camp for the displaced. As they talked outside his tent home, Diaa Mohammed hung on a line the girls’ clothes, still reeking one week later of chlorine used in the attack.
But for these and many other average Syrians, leaving their homes and cities doesn’t end their trauma. Some of them relocate many times. To remain inside Syria, they face danger from bombardments and ever-present jihadist groups who meld with rebel forces fighting the Assad regime, taking up positions inside residential areas. Nonfighters face impossible choices: to join the jihadists or be conscripted into the Syrian army. The only way for men to remain with their families is to accept forced relocation to areas under the regime’s control.
Outside Syria, nearly every country in the world has restrictions on Syrian refugees. Syria’s neighbors—some at break points themselves from the seven-year war—now make it difficult for Syrians to cross their borders.
In all, nearly 12 million people of Syria’s 20 million prewar population are displaced: 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations, living outside the country, and 6.1 million people displaced inside Syria. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also counts nearly 3 million Syrians living in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. Altogether, it’s the world’s largest displacement crisis.
TURKEY, with a 500-mile shared border, currently has 3.6 million Syrian refugees—and overall the largest refugee population of any country in the world. For the NATO member straddling Europe and Asia, absorbing so many Syrians is like adding a city the size of Los Angeles inside a country the size of Texas.
At the height of the migrant crisis that began in 2014-15, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement with the European Union to halt refugees streaming from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to Greece and beyond. Erdogan agreed to stanch the migrant flow in exchange for EU payments to help shelter the refugees inside Turkey’s borders. From 2016 to 2017 the EU provided Turkey $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid under the pact.
As a result, most Syrian refugees have limited options for resettlement from Turkey, only life in one of Turkey’s organized camps or on their own. Apart from the camps—which house less than 5 percent of Turkey’s refugee population and are closed to most international aid groups and reporters—little aid actually appears to go to refugees. Most of the Syrians live in rough, unorganized camps on the outskirts of cities or are trying to start from scratch in urban areas.
For the West, the Turkey-EU deal involves unintended consequences, giving Erdogan inordinate power in exchange for stemming the migrant tide. Erdogan in 2016 enacted emergency laws following a coup attempt, and they remain in effect. Under those laws the government has arrested thousands of political opponents, judges, journalists, and others, including foreign workers like American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Erdogan launched a massive campaign to build mosques across the country, and a colossal mosque is underway atop Taksim Square, one of the most popular areas of Istanbul. Organized as a secular democracy, Turkey has growing ties to Islamic institutions that coincide with evidence of Erdogan supporting Islamic State militants.
Thousands of ISIS fighters gained entry to Syria across Turkey’s border. Turkey repeatedly has given cover to ISIS fighters advancing on mostly ethnic Armenian, Assyrian, and Kurdish communities in northern Syria. In recent months, Turkey launched an offensive with heavy weapons into Syria’s Afrin region and sent ground forces into Iraq, while positioning tanks and heavy artillery along both borders. All with little to no protest from Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States.
“Erdogan has the trump card. He can act with impunity and against the West’s interests, and if it protests, he can threaten to release another million migrants,” said an officer with one international aid group who’s not named for security reasons. “He holds Europe hostage and blackmails NATO and the United States.”