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Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
Arresting Yemen’s Freefall
Arresting Yemen’s Freefall

Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas

ŞENYURT, Turkey: Fleeing from fighting and hunger in north-eastern Syria a year and a half ago, Abdullah’s family found refuge in a crowded refugee camp in Turkey. Nine months later, his three-year-old son Mohammed caught meningitis. Fearing for the health of his other two children, Abdullah rented a room in a mud-brick house here in the small town of Şenyurt, joining the little-seen Kurdish minority among Turkey’s one million Syrian “urban refugees”.

As Mohammed lay immobile, Turkish hospitals tried to treat him. But doctors’ advice was largely unintelligible to Abdullah’s Kurdish- and Arabic-speaking family. Above all, Abdullah felt that the Turkish medicines weren’t good enough. So he returned to the country from which he had escaped, even taking the daily Syrian Airways flight from the northern town of Qamishli to Damascus in search of “stronger” medicine. “At least his eyes are open now”, Abdullah said.

A three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee lies paralysed with meningitis in Şenyurt, watched by his family. Following the subsequent intervention of a Turkish journalist, the Turkish government took the boy off for new treatment in a state hospital. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Abdullah’s journeys are just one of many paradoxes on the eastern end of Turkey’s 911km-long border with Syria. Many stem from Turkey’s conflicted and evolving view of ethnic Kurds, who are the majority on both sides of the frontier here in Mardin province. Some in Turkey challenge the legitimacy of the border itself, which, drawn a century ago by imperial Britain and France, cuts a once united town in half along the railway line – Syria’s al-Darbasiya to the south, Turkey’s Şenyurt to the north. Others believe Turkey would be mad to do anything to open up the border and empower the Syrian Kurds who dominate three cantons south of the border. They believe they have a mortal enemy in the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), the Syrian sister party of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK), which has waged an insurgent war against Ankara for three decades. (For more on the PYD, see Crisis Group’s 8 May report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria.)

Şenyurt represents a compromise between these two positions: little aid ever gets across the Syrian Kurdish sections of the border, but most days Turkish soldiers allow 500-600 Syrians, mostly Kurds, to cross each way between an improvised chicane of sandbags by a railway siding. Just ten metres away flies the flag of the PYD’s first checkpoint. To many Kurds in the region, such normalisation is a glimpse of hope that a peace process sporadically under way since the late 2000s between Turkey and the PKK may be leading to more relaxed policies, not just in Turkey, but also towards the PYD.

Further on inside al-Darbasiya, officials and armed elements loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad remain in their posts. This is the case in most other PYD-dominated towns, adding another layer of complexity for the Turkish government, which has vowed to do everything to see Assad removed from office. But for now such complications – not to mention the turmoil close by in Syria and Iraq – seem a long way from the pleasant tea garden Turkey has arranged for families to sit in while waiting to cross. On the mid-June evening I visited, a pair of young Syrian Arabs wanting to go back home had arrived after the border had closed, and were settling down to spend the evening in the lee of a railway building with a few beers.

As the Syria crisis enters its fourth year, this mix of Syrian Kurds coming and going, politics and ethnic strains make Mardin province an increasingly sensitive part of Turkey’s massive refugee burden. Overall, there are now 220,000 Syrians living in camps and – according to Veysel Dalmaz, Turkey’s “Coordinator Governor” for Syrian refugees – perhaps as many as one million more living in towns. At least one quarter of urban refugees are completely unregistered, and most are outside the scope of humanitarian assistance. Many are very poor. With only 23 per cent of registered refugees being male and over the age of eighteen, and usually much older, the lack of working-age menfolk can be a grave disadvantage for many families.

International experts say the strict security and fencing of refugee camps is normal and vital to protect them from possible predatory behaviour by outsiders. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

One of the camps is in Mardin province, near Midyat. Guiding our group of visitors around the immaculately maintained tents and shipping container-sized metal huts in which refugees live, Governor Dalmaz said Turkey was on a learning curve. At first, he said, Turkey supplied refugees with cooked food, but then realised “it was expensive and unsatisfactory to them”. Instead, it has allowed a system mostly funded by the UN’s World Food Programme to give families 85 lira ($42) every month to buy and cook their own food. “It ended a lot of waste and reduced our costs by 70 per cent of what we spent in the past. It reduced stress, and halved the number of people going to hospital”, Dalmaz said. “It’s a first in the world, and all our 22 camps are run like this now”.

The Midyat camp is set in stony, near-desert hills 50km north of the Syrian border. Unlike similar camps visited by Crisis Group in Hatay at the western end of the border in 2013, in this camp few families said their menfolk were active opposition fighters (see our blog “For now, Turkey Copes Well with Syrian Influx in Hatay Province”). The camp is currently just half-full – it was originally set up for refugees from Syria’s Syriac Christian community, but few stayed in Turkey, and not in camps – and refugees have only minor complaints. Standing in the camp’s neat supermarket, where refugees are able to use their new credit cards to buy food, Ahmed, director of the camp’s 1,000-pupil school, listed just three demands: asphalt on the roads between the tents and containers, to keep down the omnipresent dust; new covering material for the tents; and new clothes for the women and children. One refugee complained that the fresh food on display in the camp shop was “just because you’re visiting”.

Reflecting the shock of lives suddenly turned upside down, other refugees complained that they even wanted more air conditioners. International aid worker Anton Vanzupten, a veteran of far more impoverished African emergencies, explained: “We have to understand it as a question of where they were, and where they are now”. Still, many camp residents were grateful for what they’d got.

“I can work ten days a month in town, and look what I can buy in town, and at half the price of the camp shop”, complained Ali, a refugee who dragged me off to his immaculate tent to show off a fridge full of fresh produce. “Still, the administration of the camp is fine, and my kids like the kindergarten. It’s good”.

Aid workers said the card system only started in this camp in May, and that more competition and control would soon bring prices down.Governor Dalmaz said Ankara needs longer-term policies, as it is unlikely there will be a quick return home for the Syrian refugees. He said he was seeking his government’s official endorsement of refugee school certificates so school graduates can go to Turkish universities. He wants work permits issued “at least temporarily so refugees can get by, not sit around”. Unusually for senior Turkish officials, he also called for more Turkish engagement with international NGOs. “If we can have international NGOs, then let them help! All we need is a roadmap [from Ankara]”, he said. Such ideas are also principal recommendations made by Crisis Group in its 30 April 2014 report The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire.

A refugee in Midyat camp shows off his Turkish-supplied tent kitchen in the ancient town of Midyat, a few kilometres from the Midyat camp. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Few Syrian Kurds go to the camps, and the Midyat camp is nearly entirely Sunni Arab. Most of the few Kurds who did go into camps along the Turkish border left in 2012, as tensions between them and Syrian Arabs rose after fighting between rival ethnic militias broke out in Syria. Another reason is that many Syrian Kurdish refugees have relatives to stay with in Mardin. Mehmet Timurağaoğlu, president of a local NGO platform, reckons about 100,000 urban Syrians, almost all Kurds, are living unregistered new lives in the province, working as field labourers, drivers, shepherds, and in construction. This is more than double the figure estimated for the province by the UN.

Overall, Veysel Ayhan, a humanitarian activist working with the Syrian Kurds who is also president of Ankara’s International Middle East Peace Research Center, estimates that 250,000 of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are Kurds, mostly living in Mardin and other eastern, Kurdish-speaking provinces. Another 200,000 Syrian Kurds have gone to Iraqi Kurdistan, he believes. Normally there are 2-2.5 million Kurds in Syria, 10-15 per cent of the overall population.

Efforts to bring aid to Syrian Kurds in Turkey have lagged behind aid distributions at the western end of the Turkey-Syria border. According to Timurağaoğlu, one promising idea in Mardin is a “twin families” program, 100 local families who have taken responsibility to pay for the welfare of a refugee family each, mostly Kurds helping Kurds. “We’ve managed to set up some schools too, but this is going to go on a long time, and we need more long-term plans”, Mr Timurağaoğlu said. Another new aid effort in the province, designed by Germany’s Welthungerhilfe and funded by the EU’s humanitarian office ECHO, aims to put 40 lira ($20) per person monthly in the pockets of the poorest 8,000 refugees. A family of five would then still only receive a quarter of the minimum amount needed to live, which would at least pay for housing, usually the biggest problem refugees face. Still, it is also only a small step towards financing the overall Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, where UN emergency programs are only one-third funded, and the outside world has contributed less than one tenth of the $3 billion cost to Ankara.

The Şenyurt home of Turkish nurse Nadire Demircan (R), who has divided up her house and given a large room and access to a toilet to a four-person Syrian refugee family who she’d seen living for three days on the street in town. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Problems at the eastern end of the Turkey-Syria border could get much worse. Mardin NGO leader Timurağaoğlu said the population in many PYD-dominated Syrian cities over the border had doubled due to internal displacement, and Turkey could be their next destination. Abdulrahman Suleyman, a Syrian Kurdish tribal leader, said the best way for Turkey to pre-empt any new wave of refugees would be to reverse a policy that blocks most cross-border humanitarian aid. “People fled mainly because of a lack of food, medicine and electricity”, he said. A leader of Mardin’s Rojava Initiative, set up to support the Syrian Kurdish areas, said that when they printed 60,000 schoolbooks for the area, Turkish officials refused to let them across border.

This Syrian Kurdish refugee was once a butcher in the northern Syrian town of Tal Tamer, 90km from the Turkish border. He was forced by fighting, dwindling foodstocks and lack of medicine to flee with two of his children. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Turkey has only occasionally allowed supplies to pass to Syria’s north east, since the PYD dominates the area and the Syrian government is still present in many ways. Suleyman said that of 79 UN trucks sent over the nearby Nusaybin-Qamishli border gate in March 2014, “not a single truck came to us. It was all sent to [regime-controlled areas like] Banias and Latakia”. Turkey has allowed humanitarian and other aid to cross the border further to the west, even sometimes supplying areas controlled by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL).

But ISIL’s threatening sweep through the territories south of this stretch of Turkish border this month are changing Ankara’s perceptions. One aid agency says it has been asked to stop supplying ISIL areas, and there are signs of further warming of Turkish perceptions towards the Kurds, especially in Iraq. (As commentator Cengiz Çandar put it in Al-Monitor after Iraqi Kurds advanced this month to take full control of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, “Only a couple of years ago any Kurdish claim to Kirkuk was a red line for Turkey. Now, Turkey is not only reconciling itself to Kurdish control over Kirkuk, but it is considering it the best option”.) A senior Turkish official hinted to Crisis Group that the on/off talks with the Syrian Kurdish PYD over the past year may result in more open policies towards them, “slowly, slowly”.

Veysel Ayhan, the humanitarian activist working with Mardin’s Syrian Kurds, said it would be in Turkey’s best interest to let humanitarian supplies over to the PYD areas. “We have to get the food to places where the refugee flow is coming from. The PYD areas are currently safe, and there would be no problem [with the Syrian government’s intervening] if the shipments were regular. The refugees might even go back”, he said. “But the area has had almost no aid for three and half years, and right now there’s nothing left there, no food, and maybe 2-3 million people, and those who are now coming are fleeing hunger, not fighting. And if they start moving over the border they won’t just come to Mardin, but will go on to Istanbul and to Europe too”.


The names of the refugees in this story have been changed. Crisis Group would like to thank the Delegation of the European Union in Turkey and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO) for arranging visits to their projects, partners and beneficiaries in the region.

Arresting Yemen’s Freefall

UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen have made little progress. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to send more aid to Yemen, and push the UN to increase diplomatic outreach, especially to the Huthis, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council.

In the spring 2020 EU Watch List, Crisis Group warned that the military, political and humanitarian situation in Yemen could go “from bad to worse”. That has happened: Yemen is in freefall. UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire have borne no fruit. Nor have attempts to prevent a battle for Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last bastion in the north. Huthi rebels appear poised to launch another offensive on the city in the coming weeks and months. If Marib falls, and even if it does not, fighting is also likely to intensify on other fronts. A Saudi-brokered deal between the government and southern secessionists hangs by a thread, even after the sides formed a power-sharing government in December 2020. A Huthi takeover of Marib would also likely precipitate a fresh wave of conflict in Yemen’s south and west.

The humanitarian crisis continues to worsen amid huge aid shortfalls and a Yemeni government-imposed fuel embargo on Huthi-held territory. The UN has warned repeatedly that famine is imminent. Only the infusion of billions of dollars in aid has staved off mass starvation to date. But donors have pledged just half of the money the UN says it needs for 2021 amid a coronavirus-induced funding crunch. Fighting over Marib city could make aid agencies’ work harder by triggering mass displacement and further limiting the supply of basic commodities. On top of everything, a year after COVID-19’s spread in Yemen first drew global attention, the country is suffering its deadliest outbreak yet.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Send more aid, escalating Yemen’s status as a priority recipient of the EU’s global response to COVID-19 through joint initiatives between Brussels and member states; increasing humanitarian funding under the new budget programming; and accelerating discussions about investment in medium-term projects – away from front lines – that foster local stability.
  • Advocate for forming a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate the world’s response to Yemen’s disaster, including through more concerted diplomacy in support of a ceasefire and the peace process. Such a group should include the EU, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • Push the UN to shift its mediation efforts away from a two-party focus on the Huthis and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi toward a more inclusive peace process that encompasses other political and armed factions as well as women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors.
  • Working within EU COVID-19 protocols, increase diplomatic outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden.

Marib Offensive and UN Mediation

Since early 2020, Huthi fighters have focused on taking Marib governorate, in particular the eponymous city, along with nearby oil, gas and electricity production facilities. The Huthi campaign has been intermittent, and the rebels have at times struggled to advance. Saudi Arabia, which is allied with the internationally recognised government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has mounted a fierce aerial defence. Thousands of Huthi and anti-Huthi fighters have been killed and injured over the course of the year. Yet the Huthis have shrugged off their losses. A clear trend has emerged on the ground: gradual if uneven Huthi progress, coupled with growing unease and falling morale among forces aligned with the Hadi government. Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Fearing a growing humanitarian and displacement crisis amid a major coronavirus outbreak, and aware that a Huthi takeover of Marib would have a knock-on effect on dynamics elsewhere in Yemen, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has sought since early 2020 to broker a nationwide ceasefire. In 2020, the Huthis told Griffiths they would agree to a truce if the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government lifted all restrictions on Hodeida port on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and allowed the Sanaa airport to reopen to international flights after four years of Saudi-imposed closure. For much of the year, the government and the Saudis argued that the Huthi proposal gave the rebels too much and quibbled over the fine print in draft agreements.

The parties failed to reach an accord, and now the landscape has shifted. In early 2021, after making a series of rapid military gains, the rebels shifted the goalposts, insisting that the government and Saudis unblock the port and airport unilaterally before they would consider a truce. They also backed away from the prospect of a nationwide ceasefire, saying they would first consider a cross-border ceasefire under which they would stop drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia in return for a moratorium on Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, including Marib. Riyadh and the Hadi government deemed the Huthi position a non-starter. In turn, the Huthis rejected a public Saudi offer made in March to ease restrictions on Sanaa airport and resume negotiations over Hodeida in return for a nationwide ceasefire and a mutual halt to cross-border attacks.

Fresh U.S. Energy

The recent change in leadership in Washington has injected fresh energy into international efforts to stop the fighting, with President Joe Biden making ending the Yemen war a top Middle East policy priority along with returning to the Iran nuclear deal. In February, Biden announced that he was halting all offensive support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He also said the administration would cease some arms sales, remove the Huthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) and appoint a new U.S. special envoy for Yemen – a role now filled by veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking. Lenderking has been highly active since his appointment, travelling regularly to the Gulf (but not yet Yemen), and pushing the Huthis and Saudis to agree to a truce.

Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable.

Washington wishes to engineer a conflict outcome acceptable to both itself and Riyadh. Yet its ability to do so is limited, as the Huthis hold the upper hand. By publicly prioritising ending the Yemen war, the administration may also have given the Huthis, and their main external supporter Iran, the sense that the conflict represents a more valuable bargaining chip than in the past. Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable, and U.S. officials appear to be increasingly convinced that they cannot persuade the rebels to abandon their quest for victory in Marib.

Humanitarian Meltdown

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed greater limits on aid agencies’ ability to work in Yemen, and on donors’ generosity toward a country the UN says is already the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yemen continues to sit at the brink of famine. Donors pledged $1.7 billion to fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal in March, less than half the figure the UN had asked for, leaving a $2 billion gap in the UN’s budget for the year. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, warned that as a result the UN “doesn’t have enough money to stop famine”.

A battle for Marib would make the humanitarian crisis still graver and more complex. Local government officials claim that two million people have moved to Marib since the war began six years ago, many of them with sufficient resources to settle and live without aid assistance, while UN estimates of poorer, formally displaced people living in temporary settlements hover around 700,000. In the event that fighting reaches Marib city, the UN believes that around 350,000 people will be displaced, seeking to travel either eastward to Seiyoun, a six-hour drive under normal circumstances, or southward to Shebwa. Both routes are likely to be dangerous, and fighting could cut off the Shebwa road entirely. The UN says it has contingency plans for a battle, but the response will put further strain on its already limited aid budget.

A Way Forward

With chances of a diplomatic breakthrough slim, Yemen’s trajectory in the coming months will largely be determined by developments in Marib. If the Huthis take Marib city, or negotiate its surrender, the government will lose its last major stronghold in the north; it may then face an attempted takeover by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern governorates as well. A Huthi victory in Marib could also precipitate intra-Yemeni deal-making, most likely between the Huthis and one or more rival factions, potentially including the STC, at the expense of the Hadi government. Moreover, the STC and other groups are likely to press for a direct role in UN-led talks, rather than the indirect one they are afforded as part of the Saudi-brokered 2019 Riyadh Agreement. Even if the Huthis and government can reach a ceasefire in Marib, many local conflict parties remain sceptical it will last, or that it is in their interest to comply with its terms if they are not given a say in subsequent UN-led political talks.

For these reasons, whatever happens next in Marib, it is increasingly clear that the international approach to Yemen needs to be rethought. The UN’s current two-party mediation framework that focuses narrowly on the Huthis and the Hadi government (with Saudi Arabia active behind the scenes and wielding a de facto veto over any settlement) excludes many of the armed and political factions likely to influence the durability of a ceasefire or political settlement. It also boxes out political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth organisations that have been crucial throughout the war to preserving local stability and social cohesion and whose buy-in and support will thus be important in sustaining any pact.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors. The EU and Special Envoy Lenderking should press for the creation of a UN-chaired international contact group, which can revisit the UN mediation framework and encourage adoption of a new multi-party approach that better reflects the emerging reality on the ground. Such a body could establish a division of labour among its members to support the peace process, with sub-groups focusing on key topics such as sub-national conflicts (like the one between the government and STC), economic warfare and outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, which has been constrained by COVID-19, with no senior diplomat visiting since early 2020.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The EU and its member states should bolster UN-led efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They should also help coordinate the international diplomatic response to the war.

The EU’s inclusion in an international contact group would allow EU representatives to act as a force multiplier, positioning them to solicit funds and diplomatic capacity from member states for issues the group determines to be priorities. The EU and member states can also, along with P5 members and others, push for contact group members to start making regular diplomatic trips to Sanaa, Aden and perhaps Marib to ensure better contact with the Huthis, the Hadi government and other relevant groups in Yemen, providing them with a clearer picture of international thinking about the conflict. The EU and its member states can also play an important role in advocating within the contact group for a more inclusive political process, and share their practical experience in brokering local truces, reopening roads and freeing prisoners.

Whether or not as part of any contact group, to help make the peace process properly inclusive, the EU and its member states should throw their weight behind efforts to press the UN Security Council to adopt a broader interpretation of Resolution 2216 (prevalent interpretations of which have unhelpfully limited UN mediation to two-party negotiations to end the fighting) so that the UN can introduce a quota for women and other civil society figures in direct talks. The EU should also work with the UN to establish a parallel mediation track with women’s and civil society organisations, that at a minimum enjoys a direct channel of communication with UN deliberations, and ideally leads to a substantive role in the negotiation of a political settlement for those involved. The EU already funds work for women’s inclusion; it should increase its support for and engagement with groups on the ground.

The EU and member states should also begin active discussions about how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of COVID-19’s continued spread, the troubling socio-economic indicators and the huge deficit facing UN aid agencies in 2021. The EU should make it an even greater priority to allocate extraordinary humanitarian funds in response to the virus and increase its development assistance through joint programming with member states under the new EU multi-annual budget. Finally, whether or not the war continues, the EU and member states should start making medium-term plans to help improve conditions – potentially entailing local infrastructure development, capacity-building support for local government and civil society organisations, small business loans and similar efforts in areas away from the front lines that are starved of basic services and governance. Such projects could help foster at least a modicum of stability away from the fighting and may prevent the further deterioration of local institutions.