AMMAN — “Bring your father, today has been better than the last couple days; I swear nothing is happening,” a resident of Ras al-Ain implored his nephew over WhatsApp. Shortly after, Ahmad’s (a pseudonym) mother sent him a message: “Wait. No one here knows their head from their legs, if you head towards us, they will snatch you up.”
These messages, sent over the space of a few hours between members of the same household, underscore the lack of clarity and diverging narratives surrounding the aftermath of “Operation Peace Spring” launched by Turkey in early October and the resulting mass displacement.
According to the latest United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report on November 19, 117,000 people returned to their homes while 75,000 remain displaced, down from the peak of 200,000 displaced in mid-October.
In an internal UN document obtained by Syria Direct on November 18, a more detailed breakdown reveals that just over 107,000 people have returned to districts of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain (also known as Sere Kaniye in Kurdish).
The two districts have been plagued by degraded security conditions and war crimes committed by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) who now control them, according to Amnesty International. Car bombings struck both districts this past week, killing nine in Tal Abyad and 17 in Ras al-Ain.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have also been accused of killing three civilians who were suspected of belonging to an SNA sleeper cell in Ras al-Ain during their withdrawal from the city. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) has also been previously criticized for “arbitrary arrests” of Syrian activists by Amnesty International.
These threats to personal safety, in addition to services that have “deteriorated” according to the OCHA report, paints a starkly different picture than the one illustrated through UN figures.
“That number is large, I haven’t seen that number of people,” Qusay Al-Butahawi, a 30-year old Arab resident of Tal Abyad, told Syria Direct when presented with the UN return figure to his hometown. “It is not safe to return; every week there is a car bombing,” he said.
“I am sick, but there are no doctors here,” the mother of Ahmad told her friend on November 18 in WhatsApp messages forwarded to Syria Direct. “The soldiers are staying in your house right now; there’s nothing we could do.” She further expressed fear of being seen using her phone, as SNA soldiers might search her phone and punish her for its content.
Grotesque instances of looting, pillaging and retaliation by the SNA against civilians have been reported by several sources still within Turkish-controlled areas. These allegations—which constitute war crimes—have also been corroborated by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a November 27 report.
Sources close to the SNA insist that life is going back to normal in Turkish-controlled areas. “All of those that were displaced by Operation Peace Spring have returned to their homes,” the former head of Raqqa province council, Sa’ad Fahad al-Showish, told Syria Direct.
“The UN is correct. Between 50 and 70 thousand have returned, Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs. The numbers are not exact, but returnees are coming back every day,” he said.
According to Mahar Abdulrahman Shado, a media activist from Tal Abyad, “The conditions [in Tal Abyad] are getting better each day and the available services are improving, especially after the [SNA-created] council began its work.”
Shado, who is now living in Turkey due to being wanted by the SDF, added that “we as civil society activists are confirming the safety of the city’s residents and forging bridges between the constituent groups.”
Shado recently visited Tal Abyad, something he was unable to do for the past five years while the city was under SDF control, as his activities as a “media activist” led to persecution at the hands of the American-backed forces.
However, despite assurances to the contrary, it remains unclear if safe return is only being assured to non-Kurdish residents of Turkish-controlled areas, as multiple primary sources reported that Kurds were prevented from returning to their homes in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and almost every civilian who spoke to Syria Direct had experienced some form of abuse at the hands of the SNA.
In some cases, Kurdish civilians were reportedly attacked by SNA factions as they attempted to return home.
In one such case, a civilian from Ras al-Ain, Abdulrazaq Sino, was attacked by SNA soldiers while attempting to return to his home, according to an interview Qamishli-based Rojava Information Center provided to Syria Direct that was later corroborated by the HRW report.
“It was like a horror movie… We are civilians, we did not have any weapons with us,” Sino said. He, along with a group of four other civilians were fired upon by SNA factions as they passed a security checkpoint on the road between Tal Tamer and Ras al-Ain. All three of his companions were killed and he was wounded by gunfire.
Asked about this and other instances of violence or prevention of Kurds’ return, al-Showish said that “this was incorrect,” but did say that those who were working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are not able to come back at this time. Turkey considers the SDF and the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US, EU, Turkey and several other countries.
Al-Showish added that the SNA has a list of names of those affiliated with the PKK and that those people are unable to return to the town. However, Rafet Janeed, the head of media relations for the SNA-affiliated 3rd corps told Syria Direct that no such list exists yet, though the Tal Abyad local council was working on assembling a list of names of those who worked with the PKK.
Those who have returned who were affiliated with the SDF were “imprisoned upon their return and then let out a few days later,” according to a source close to the AA who spoke under the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Further, three convoys of people, carrying about 600 families, were transported from Turkey into Tal Abyad on November 24, according to al-Showish. The convoy was mostly made up of “Arabs and Turkmen, though there are some Kurds who returned from areas controlled by the SDF,” Shado said.
A video obtained by Syria Direct showed three coach buses and a truck laden with luggage, accompanied by police cars with Turkish license plates driving through Tal Abyad on November 20. Several sources who spoke to Syria Direct confirmed that a number of families were transported from Turkey to Tal Abyad on that date.
A screenshot of the video of a convoy allegedly carrying returnees to Tal Abyad from Turkey, 11/20/2019 (Source: Staff member of the Tal Abyad local council)
Return figures being politicized
Return figures are critical to the narrative of both Turkey and the AA. Turkey has a vested interest in assuring the success of its “safe zone,” which is the first step in plans to repatriate some 2-3 million Syrian refugees currently living in the country. The return of Syrian refugees would shore up political support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) domestically and would help create a “buffer zone” on its border free of the AA.
Conversely, the AA has an incentive to report lower return numbers in order to depict the Turkish offensive as a destabilizing force in the region. Accordingly, the AA issued a formal letter of protest against UN OCHA’s “whitewashing of the crisis” and rejected its high return numbers on November 21.
In this context, the UN’s monitoring efforts as a third party is more critical than ever. However, its ability to issue accurate numbers has been hurt by a lack of presence on the ground and the flight of international NGOs who it has previously relied on for monitoring.
“As far as I know, they have not directly accessed Turkish-controlled areas, though no doubt they have contacts there,” Thomas McGee a humanitarian analyst and PhD candidate at Melbourne University focusing on northeast Syria told Syria Direct.
The UN previously relied on REACH, a Geneva-based UN affiliate, for on-the-ground monitoring in Syria. In an October REACH publication, the organization reported that “due to developments in northeast Syria, REACH and partners have currently lost coverage in the region.”
Without staff on the ground, the subsequent UN coverage of displacement caused significant confusion for multiple area researchers and local NGOs Syria Direct spoke to.
In particular, there was a large discrepancy between the reported displacement and return numbers between two UN monitoring mechanisms: OCHA and the Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme (HNAP), the latter of which circulates information exclusively for humanitarian organizations working within Syria. At times, the two agencies reported a 90,000 difference in displacement figures.
Methodology risks errors in reporting
HNAP is “coordinated through local Syrian NGOs” and is based on information reported by “community focal points” present in the area, according to the HNAP Mobility and Needs Monitoring October overview. By contrast, the Gaziantep, Turkey office of OCHA has an opaque methodology, using “input from different sources,” one of which is likely HNAP, to determine displacement and return figures in Syria.
The reason for the disparities in displacement and return figures remain unclear, but the methodology for reporting returns for the two agencies does seem to leave some room for error when it comes to returns, as the reliance on “community focal points” risks an overrepresentation of the group who dominates that particular reporting area.
For example, in Turkish-controlled Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain where it is reported that the majority of returns are made up of Arab and Turkmen families and non-SDF affiliated Kurds, there is a greater concentration of sources of certain demographics and political affiliation.
This gives the potential for an overreporting of return figures as sources’ relatives and social circles are more likely to have returned and they are less likely to know those who remain displaced. However, any overreporting is impossible to verify without direct access to UN sources.
In addition, “people supportive of the AA and the SDF are too scared to speak to us or the local media, let alone the UN,” Thomas McClure, a researcher at the Rojava Information Center, told Syria Direct. Such a chilling effect on civilians opposed to the SNA could lead to further distortion in return data.
On the other hand, the fact that returns to Turkish-controlled areas seem to be largely split along ethnic lines means that to the AA, which is inundated with Kurdish IDPs, return figures reported by the UN appear impossibly high.
Who exactly is returning?
Adding to the confusion, those who are returning to Turkish-controlled areas are not necessarily the same people who were displaced from the most recent Turkish offensive.
According to al-Showish, many “of the civilians who have returned to Tal Abyad were displaced from the area as a result of Operation Euphrates Shield,” a Turkish offensive in northern Syria which ended in March 2017.
Since the UN does not track individual IDPs or do a headcount of returnees, return figures include those who are returning from any past instance of displacement, not just those IDPs who are returning from the most Operation Peace Spring.
Thus, as return figures to Turkish-controlled areas increase there is not necessarily an equivalent decrease in those displaced from the recent Turkish offensive, something which is not immediately clear within OCHA reporting without having access to sources within Syria.
Return numbers are likely to grow even quicker as the border crossing between Tal Abyad and Turkey opened for the first time in five years on November 26, clearing the way for a large number of Syrians to return from Turkey.
As these figures grow, clear and accurate reporting is essential not only for the provision of humanitarian aid, but also in order to ensure that no political body is able to unduly influence the global perception of the situation in northeast Syria.
This article was edited on 5/12/2019 at 10:15 AM.