Tens of thousands of Syrians are expected to return to the Kurdish region of Afrin after Turkey finishes its military offensive against the YPG militia and secures the area, Turkish officials said on Thursday.
Turkey – together with the Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group – last month launched an air-and-ground operation into Afrin in the northwest of Syria to vanquish the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters near its border.
Turkey hosts the vast majority of refugees who fled the war in Syria with 3.4 million displaced within its borders, according to the Turkish government. About 5.6 million Syrians have left the war-torn country since March 2011.
“Turkey will try to enhance the infrastructure and resources in Afrin after it is secured for them to return,” said Yasin Aktay, a chief adviser to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey considers the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and its armed wing YPG to be “terrorist groups” with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK has waged a decades-long armed fight against the Turkish state that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Aktay, also a senior member of parliament, said he expects tens of thousands of refugees to return to Afrin once the military operation is over.
“We know that many Syrian refugees in Turkey want to return home if a secure environment is established in their region of origin. However, others prefer to stay in Turkey until the whole country is secured,” Aktay told Al Jazeera.
Another official familiar with the issue, who asked to remain anonymous, said there are refugees in Turkey who left Afrin because of the Kurdish militia and they, in particular, would be the focus of any return.
“There are Kurdish refugees who escaped the group there,” the official said.
“We cannot give any expected numbers as all returns are going to be voluntary. We are in no position to force them to return to their home country.”
He noted 140,000 Syrian refugees returned home after Turkey’s previous cross-border operation – dubbed Euphrates Shield – that ended in March 2017 after seven months.
During that offensive, Turkey and the FSA captured the border town of Jarablus by the Euphrates River, removed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters from the 100-km stretch of border, and advanced to the southern city of al-Bab, which was also under ISIL control.
The FSA, supported by Turkish troops, are still in control of the 200,000-square metre area.
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