ISTANBUL — On Sept. 17, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey struck a deal with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to delay an all-out assault on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, where three million people live and which shares a long border with Turkey. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin agreed to establish a demilitarized zone nine to 12 miles deep between the rebels and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
By using his political capital to delay the attack on Idlib and a new wave of refugees, Mr. Erdogan has bought a window of reprieve for the residents of Idlib and staved off trouble on the Syrian refugee question in Turkey, where the initial hospitality toward the refugees has been replaced by weariness and resentment. Mr. Erdogan was aware that Turkey has reached the point of saturation on taking in more Syrian refugees.
Since 2011, Turkey took in around 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has spent $30 billion with minimal international burden sharing. Turkey has followed the principle of “non-refoulement” and not pushed refugees and asylum seekers back to their homeland. Mr. Erdogan’s government has also granted Turkish citizenship to more than 60,000 Syrians, mostly those with higher cultural and economic capital.
A traditional emigration country since the 1960s, Turkish authorities have finally accepted that the country has become a destination country for immigrants and refugees, with direct consequences on labor markets and other social institutions. In 2013, Turkey established the Directorate General for Migration Management to deal with migration flows, register asylum seekers for refugee status and supervise the humanitarian aspect of Syrian refugee settlement. It has granted Syrian refugees certain rights, including free public health care and education. Around 600,000 Syrian children attend public schools, and some 17,000 Syrian students are being educated at Turkish universities.
Ninety-four percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey live in cities. Although there are 8,000 to 10,000 registered Syrian businesses operating in Turkey and about 25,000 Syrians are legally employed, International Crisis Group estimated that about a million Syrians are employed in the informal sector with minimal pay and no social security. In January 2016, Turkey issued a new regulation allowing registered Syrian refugees to apply for work permits, but the number of Syrians with formal work permits remains small.
Turkish generosity toward the Syrian refugees was partly motivated by their being coreligionists. The Islamic discourse of how the residents of Medina helped the early Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad, who migrated to Medina to escape prosecution in Mecca, led many Islamic civil society organizations to extend humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey and in rebel-held areas of Syria like Idlib.
But over the years, resentment against Syrians refugees grew in Turkey. A survey carried out by the German Marshall Fund and Istanbul Bilgi University suggests that more than 85 percent of Turks, regardless of polarization in society, political affiliation and voting behavior, are united on the repatriation of Syrians.
Partly exacerbated by the economic downturn in the country and partly by the public misperceptions that Syrians are stealing jobs and altering public culture, the welcoming attitude of many Turks has waned and led to sporadic incidents targeting Syrians in some areas.
Before the general elections in June, the Turkish government suggested that it would work to establish a safe corridor for the eventual return of Syrian refugees back to their homeland. In September, the Turkish interior minister declared that about 245,000 Syrians had voluntarily returned to Jarabulus, Afrin, Idlib and Mambij, which are outside of Mr. Assad’s control.
While the agreement between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin has brought some relief, it would be difficult to carry out, and the danger of its collapse remains present and clear. Mr. Putin agreed to delay the operation but asked for the removal of “all radical terrorist groups” and “heavy weaponry” from the demilitarized zone by Oct. 15 — a matter of weeks.
The separation of the civilian population and moderate opposition from terrorist groups is a fraught and difficult task, which would have to be carried out by Turkish and Russian forces. Already, Turkey, Russia and Iran have their forces stationed at observation points along the front line separating rebel groups and regime forces in Idlib. Turkey is trying to use diplomacy and economic incentives to separate the pragmatic fighters from the hardened jihadists, who may choose to fight to the death using civilians as human shields.
Renewed fighting could lead to an enormous number of civilian deaths and a new wave of refugees toward Turkey. There is the fear of hard-line militants mixing with the refugees and entering the country. There is also the danger that the militants, including many with links to Al Qaeda, might resent the efforts to disarm them and launch terrorist attacks in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe.
In this brief window of calm, as world leaders are meeting in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, they must find fresh energy to step up both humanitarian assistance and work toward finding a political solution to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib. If time runs out and the peace agreement collapses, both Turkey and Europe will have to face a new refugee crisis.
Sebnem Koser Akcapar is the director of Asia Center at Koc University in Istanbul and senior fellow at its Migration Research Center.