Turkey and Germany in the Syrian refugees trap
Between 1945 and 1980, Syria's population jumped from three to nine million, pushing the country's war index up to between 4 and 5. This index is calculated as follows: 1,000 men aged 55 to 59 are succeeded by 4,000 to 5,000 youths aged 15 to 19. In such a population boom, only the best of these young men could hope for acceptable jobs and positions in life — either at home or in the oil sheikdoms. The tough economic competition created by this population explosion slowly transformed itself into warring religious sects. Since 1976, Sunni Muslim Brothers, the nation's majority, have been striving to wipe out the ruling Alawite minority. They succeeded in carrying out spectacular murders, but in 1982, the army under Rifaat Al-Assad, uncle of today's dictator Bashar, smashed their neighborhoods in Hama. Over 20,000 people died in the conflict. That slaughter was never forgotten.
In 2011, Syria's population reached 22 million. Its war index remained at 4 to 5, compared to 1 in the U.S. and 0.65 in Germany. But the economic situation was even more hopeless. Between 2009 and 2011 alone, unemployment rose from 8 to 15 percent. Since 1980, the number of fighting-age (15–29 years) men of all denominations has risen from 1.20 to 3.25 million. There have never been so many before. There will never be that many again. However, this will apply only as long as the 6.7 million refugees do not return. Most refugee men and women are young. Many of them have started their own families. Therefore, three million Syrians in exile are younger than 18 years.
Herwig Muenkler, a leading German war historian, defended the admission of three quarters of a million Syrians by Angela Merkel in 2015 with the image of an "overflow basin." As such, Germany would provide the "overflow" of young Arabs with humane care for a few years — with a budget of 100 billion euros — in order to return them to their homeland after the end of the war.
However, Berlin's experts hadn't considered that the Syrians themselves had fled from a "basin" that was not only constantly "overflowing," but also being replenished to the brim by their own offspring. The pressure of this population growth kept pushing their society toward war, over and over again.
As the author knows from his Turkish students (diplomats and commanders) at NATO Defense College (Rome), Ankara, too, did not think about the demographics behind Syria's civil war when it admitted 3.5 million refugees. That's a lot for a nation of 80 million (war index 2). Applied to the population of the USA (16,000 Syrians), this would be 15 million refugees. Their expenses are partly covered by Berlin and Brussels so that Turkey does not pass them on to Europe. Erdoğan also assumed they would return soon but now understood that he was in the same trap as Germany and the other host countries. The costs and the corresponding friction would only keep increasing. Now Erdoğan wants to get rid of the Syrians even if it costs him his nimbus as anti-Israel hero of the Arabs. For, despite the up to 500,000 civil war deaths between 2010 and 2020, Syria's total population grew from 21 to 25–26 million. Of these, 17 to 19 million live within the country's borders, six times more than lived there in 1945. By 2040, the internal figure is expected to rise to 30 million. The country's capacity to absorb losses will persist for another ten to twenty years.
Syria's government cannot therefore want the soon to be 7 million exiles back. Their youthful pressure would immediately reignite the violence that has just significantly subsided. Moreover, the Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish minorities would have to fear a bloody revenge, since Sunnis would again become a massive majority. Bashar Assad has unequivocally expressed this concern: "We have lost the best of our youth, but in exchange we won a healthier and more homogeneous society" (8).
"Homogeneous" means fewer Sunni. Two million of them, whom Ankara wants to settle in Northern Syria, do not constitute a security zone for Damascus. They are a declaration of war. Erdoğan knows that. So does Assad, who immediately sent troops to his border with Turkey where the first skirmishes were already reported.
Anyone — from Berlin or from anywhere else — who wants to guarantee such a zone is simply moving the failed "overflow basin" policy to another a territory devoid of a functioning economy. It may cost less to keep the Syrians there than in Germany's generous welfare sector that provides at least €12,000 annually per head for some 600,000 of them. But one has to bear in mind that even Putin's Russia does not win all its battles on the Syrian fronts. It constantly loses elite soldiers. Like their German comrades, these young Russians are likely to be their mothers' only sons or only children. When they fall, their family lines are not continued by numerous brothers as, for decades to come, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. They are erased forever. Woe to anyone that must wage war in this region.
Prof. Dres. Gunnar Heinsohn (*1943) taught war demography at the NATO Defense College (NDC) in Rome from 2011 to 2019. In 2018, he delivered the key speech for the 15th anniversary of the Joint Warfare Center (JWC) of NATO in Stavanger (Norway).