Last June in northern Syria, Kurdish forces routed the so-called Islamic State from Tal Abyad, a strategically important town on the border with Turkey, in just a matter of days. The stunning victory followed a now familiar pattern: a volley of air strikes by U.S.-led coalition warplanes set the stage for an easy advance on the ground. The Islamic State, self-styled in name as well as strength, it turned out, was left in tatters, easy prey for the surging Kurds who were already riding high on a string of battlefield successes.
The win was a harbinger of things to come. The second half of 2015 proved a disastrous period for Islamic State, or ISIS. According to some estimates, the militant group lost as much as one-third of its territory over that time. After Tal Abyad came major losses in Hassakeh and, from there, vast swaths of territory around its Syrian capital, Raqqa. Baiji, the oil refinery in Iraq, also fell to Iraqi forces and then Sinjar, the site of some of Islamic State’s worst atrocities against the Yazidi minority, was liberated.
But Tal Abyad was significant not only for the fact that it cut off one of Islamic State’s key access points to the outside world along Turkey’s porous border, but it represented one of the first primarily Sunni Arab areas under the group’s control to be freed. The subsequent refugee exodus reflected that reality. As coalition bombs rained down on the town, its inhabitants ran. An estimated 23,000 civilians, mostly Sunni Arabs who had lived under Islamic State control for months, flooded into the Turkish town of Akcakale. There, they faced a hostile local population who suspected them of being Islamic State sympathizers. Too afraid to return to their homes—and prevented from doing so anyway by Kurdish forces who kept the border gate with Akcakale closed for fear of Islamic State infiltration—thousands resigned themselves to a squalid life in abandoned lots and local parks. As the days dragged into weeks, many began to lose any hope of returning and turned their sights elsewhere.
They will be just the first wave of a new refugee crisis—one that will continue to build through 2016 with results that could be even more dire than what unfolded over the past year.
Most experts agree that Islamic State is on the road to collapse. The U.S.-led coalition has stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris massacre. Last week, Germany voted to join the fray. As ISIS disintegrates, more civilians from its territories will begin to flood into neighbouring countries, mostly Turkey. Estimates of how many will be affected are difficult to come by—no one knows the exact number of people currently living under Islamic State rule. But it could be as many as seven million.
If Tal Abyad is any measure, many of those Sunni Arabs will have no safe place to go. Kurdish-controlled safe zones in northern Syria and Iraq are bristling with anti-Arab sentiment. Elsewhere, the vast array of rebel groups fighting Islamic State each have their own agendas. The collapse of the caliphate will usher in new battles over who controls those territories. Syria’s Sunni Arabs who have remained there will be, like their counterparts in Iraq’s Anbar province, in the middle of the struggle for power over the future of Syria.
More immediately, as the bombs fall and ISIS collapses, civilians who stay could face the wrath of the rebels (whether they are Kurds, Alawites or Iranian-backed Shias) who consider them sympathetic to Islamic State.
The decision to stay in Syria when ISIS arrived was, for those who spoke to Maclean’s in Tal Abyad, a simple decision about survival. Islamic State was a manageable threat, they said. “They were cruel if you broke their rules,” Abid, a 21-year-old who lived under Islamic State rule in Raqqa for six months, admitted. “But they were also trying to run a city. You could do all the things necessary for a basic life. It was difficult, but you could survive.”
In the coming months, making the treacherous journey to Europe will be, for many, the only option. But that escape route will continue to get more and more difficult and dangerous. European officials expect another three million refugees and migrants (including Iraqis, Afghans and others) to cross over into their territory by the end of next year, far exceeding 2015 numbers. Leaders there are now scrambling to find a way to stop the influx while far-right groups, emboldened by the Paris attacks, have ratcheted up warnings that terrorists lurk among the migrants.
Lami Bertan Tokuzlu, an expert in migration and human rights law at Bilgi University in Istanbul, worries the atmosphere of suspicion may lead to massive human rights abuses. “Turkey is already having trouble coping with the 2.5 million or so refugees it currently hosts,” he says. “Anti-Syrian sentiment is reaching dangerous levels. Turkey has suffered much worse terrorist attacks than Paris. People will wonder: Why did these people stay so long under [ISIS] control? How have they been affected by the ideology? Considering the current climate in Turkey—and Europe—there will be more fear that sympathizers may now attempt to enter.”
Some of Tokuzlu’s warnings are already coming true. On Nov. 30, hours after Turkish officials signed a $4.2-billion deal with the European Union to help with the costs of housing refugees in Turkey and thereby prevent them from continuing on to Europe, Turkish security forces arrested 1,300 asylum seekers in Ayvacžk, a short boat ride across the Aegean Sea from the Greek island of Lesbos. Reports have also surfaced suggesting Turkey has begun to tighten its 1,000-km-long border with Syria and Iraq, preventing refugees from entering its territory.
Human rights groups have warned that those measures not only violate international law but will be ineffective. “Turkey has never been able to fully control its borders,” says Tokuzlu. “Desperate people will always find a way to get around border controls. These kinds of security-centric approaches will only increase the risks these people will take.”
More worrying, Tokuzlu adds, is what will happen to the refugees once they are inside Turkey. “Turkey’s institutions do not have the capacity to handle this kind of influx,” he says. “The more we see these refugees on the streets desperately trying to survive, the more they will become targets of suspicion.”
“What else can we do?” one refugee in Akcakale complained, back in June. “Simply because we lived alongside Islamic State, people now think we are Islamic State. But we did what we needed to do to survive.”