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What stops return of Syrians in Turkey to area held by Turkish forces?

What stops Syrians in Turkey from returning to the liberated Ras al-Ain?
A general view of Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC137324E500

ALEPPO, Syria — A local department that helps displaced persons in Ras al-Ain, in the north of Hasakah province in northeastern of Syria, has announced its readiness to help Syrian refugees in Turkey return to their homes.

The area is under the control of the Turkish army and the Syrian National Army (SNA) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as part of Operation Peace Spring, the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria that was launched Oct. 9. 

“We are seeking through the local council to provide the necessary services for refugees returning to Ras al-Ain, including free transportation for Syrians based in Urfa province and other Turkish provinces. Refugees, however, have to gather at the place and time specified in the announcement,” Abdel-Karim Mohammad, an official at the Directorate of Civil Peace and Displaced Persons, told Al-Monitor.

“There will be consecutive trip appointments for the refugees who wish to return. Hundreds of refugees were already transferred to Ras al-Ain on Jan. 10. There are no accurate statistics on the number of refugees who have returned so far, as there are other batches of refugees who will be transported in succession. The door is open for Syrians to return. Their entry will be through the Tell Abyad crossing and then to the Ras al-Ain area, where refugees could return to their homes and villages,” he added.

Mohammad continued, “There are no conditions for the return of refugees from Turkey provided that they obtain a permit from the Turkish Immigration Department from Urfa province to be able to pass through the Tell Abyad border crossing in the northern Raqqa countryside.”

He said, “The return of refugees is of course not limited to the Ras al-Ain area in the north of Hasakah province, but also includes those who wish to return to their homes in the Tell Abyad area in the north of Raqqa province. … These two areas were liberated by the SNA and the Turkish army as part of Operation Peace Spring. We believe that 2020 will witness the return of large influxes of refugees. The area is moving toward stability and we are upping our efforts in the various service sectors in Ras al-Ain to the largest number of people.” 

Mohammad al-Salem, a Syrian refugee residing in Urfa, told Al-Monitor, “I really wish to return home to Ras al-Ain, but the living conditions there are harsh. The area lacks basic services, such as running water and electricity. This has been the case since it was liberated. This is not to mention the difficulty of securing hydrocarbons and foodstuffs. Also, there are no job opportunities.”

“I might reconsider returning once services are available and the living conditions are improved,” he said.

Ali Ahmad, a journalist in the city of Ras al-Ain, told Al-Monitor, “The areas of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria are still in urgent need of many basic services and security efforts in order for life to return to normal. Several public service facilities need rehabilitation, and this requires time and continuous endeavors.”

An activist who moves between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain told Al-Monitor, “Local councils in the Peace Spring area are constantly seeking to provide services to improve the living conditions as many schools have recently opened their doors as well as bakeries.”

The activist, who goes by the name Abu al-Karam al-Halabi, continued, “Many hospitals are operating again, the municipalities are cleaning the roads, running water is back in most of the villages and towns, which would contribute to encouraging refugees to return. Syrian refugees, however, are waiting for the area to be completely stable and secure and for more job opportunities before they consider coming back.”

Wael al-Hamdo, head of the local council in Tell Abyad, told Al-Monitor that the council and its department for the displaced “are offering all necessary services for the people wishing to return to their homes in the city and the surrounding villages. The returnees are mostly from the city of Tell Abyad. Some of them went to Turkey in search of work and others fled the area because of the bad security situation under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.” The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated group backed by the United States, sought Kurdish autonomy in Syria.

Hamdo said fewer than expected are returning "because many are committed to schools and jobs in Turkey. The next few months are likely to witness more refugees returning to the Peace Spring area, especially during the summer.” 

Amin al-Abd, director of the Tell Abyad council's media office, said that while hundreds of refugees have returned to the SNA-controlled areas, there are many complicating factors. “The local council has an annual plan for the rehabilitation of the services facilities. There are, however, some obstacles down this road, as the area is disconnected from the rest of the SFA-liberated areas, not to mention the deteriorating security situation because of SDF actions and terrorist attacks, which greatly contribute to creating chaos and fear among people,” he said.

A car bomb exploded Jan.16 in the town of Suluk, near Tell Abyad. The explosion targeted the FSA headquarters, killing seven fighters in the SNA and the Turkish army.

Halabi said SNA leaders in Suluk told him SDF forces were responsible for the attack.

For his part, NSA media coordinator Yahya Mayo told Al-Monitor, “The Turkish government encourages Syrians living on its territories to return to the Peace Spring area, and is supporting all services and cooperating with local councils in this direction.”

Other problems are also hindering the return of refugees to the areas of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria. Chief among these are the violations committed by SNA and FSA forces. Such incidents included looting and setting houses ablaze.

It was reported that on Jan. 1, FSA fighters from the FSA al-Majd Corps killed Ammar al-Hajji, a civilian, in Tell Abyad because he refused to hand over his car key. He had been stopped, and when he refused to hand over the key, a combatant hit him with a sharp object on his head and killed him, reports said. This led dozens of people to protest against SNA violations and gather in front of the SNA military police building in Tell Abyad to demand the arrest of the killer.

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