The Cradle
Syrian refugees in Turkey: From opportunity to Achilles heel
Even though Turkey's massive refugee problem is a direct consequences of the AKP's Syria policy, both the government and the opposition try to avoid its solution: ending the war in Syria.
June 23 2022
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Photo Credit: The Cradle

In a recent TV interview, one of the most powerful political figures in Turkey, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, could barely restrain his anger.

Turning to Umit Ozdag, president of the newly-established Zafer (Victory) Party, Solyu lashed out: “This man is lower than an animal…an intelligence agent…the son of Soros.”

Ozdag is a former member of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a party now staunchly allied to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A political science professor and a hardline Turkish nationalist, Ozdag reciprocated in kind, calling Soylu a “coward” for his lack of leadership at the Interior Ministry.

Ozdag’s Zafer Party has been at the forefront of harsh criticism against Erdogan’s refugee policy within the Turkish political scene. His popularity has been growing recently, with his anti-refugee and anti-AKP policies galvanizing Turkey’s dispirited urban youth.

The issue of refugees, now a critical one in the Turkish political landscape – alongside the country’s catastrophic economic decline – has become a focal point for upcoming elections.

The geopolitics of displacement

The AKP’s Syria policy is one of the main issues at stake. Their aggressive policies towards ‘former Ottoman regions’ have dramatically shifted traditional Turkish foreign policy away from Kemal Ataturk’s motto “peace at home, peace in the world.”

Turkish academic Ozgur Balkilic writes about the AKP’s geopolitical interpretation of the refugee question in a broader context.

He argues that Turkey’s various responses to the Syrian refugee crisis are the product of a geopolitical discourse based on Islamist ideology, highlighted by the AKP discourse on civilization, and the effort to build a completely different moral and political space for Turkey.

“The geographical vision of Kemalism produced an ideological framework in which Turkey tried to integrate with the west and stay as far away from the east as possible,” Balkilic told The Cradle.

By criticizing the ‘old Turkey’ as defensive, ineffective and obsessed with security, the AKP views Turkey’s new geopolitical orientation as “indispensable” in the new international system.

“The AKP reads the Syrian refugee crisis as a repercussion of the larger political and moral crises of the international system, in which it demarcates a leadership role for Turkey. State discourse on the Syrian refugee crisis can only be understood within this geopolitical scenario,” Balkilic says.

The AKP uses the legal framework in relation to refugees for its own agenda. While party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Turkey maintains the geographical limitation only to people originating from Europe.

In reference to Syrian migrants and refugees, the AKP uses a religious definition of the word ‘guest’, not one clearly defined by official regulations.

Balkilic points out that authority-led public debates about Syrians are not shaped around the classic immigrant problems such as integration issues, legal and economic rights, and the labor market.

The language used by AKP officials is, instead, geopolitical. When Syrian immigrants are referred to as guests, they are viewed as part of the larger Islamic community, the Ummah, Balkilic stated.

This concept does not exist in the universal literature of migration, and Turkey has, as a result, been freed from its many obligations and responsibilities toward refugees and/or immigrants.

While Turkey uses a religious term to refer to Syrian refugees as guests of the nation, Turkey’s own role is expressed using another Islamic term – Ansar – which means hosting those in need.

The refugee issue as a weapon

Despite all this, the AKP’s policy towards Syria and the Syrian refugees has been forced to shift over time. First, its ‘regime change’ operation in Syria hit a brick wall. Second, the migration issue became a fault line in domestic politics.

After 2016, Turkey initiated various military operations in Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch, Operation Peace Spring, and Operation Spring Shield.

One of the announced goals of these operations was the settlement of Syrian refugees inside so-called ‘safe zones.’

Senior AKP executives have also often underlined the ‘cheap labor’ value of Syrian (and Afghan) refugees. Erhan Nalcaci, a Turkish professor and a columnist of the leftist daily Sol, believes the AKP sought to use refugees as “cheap labor and a large reserve army.”

“This was a unique opportunity to reduce wages, ignore social rights and make commodities produced in Turkey advantageous in international competition,” Nalcaci says, adding that the Turkish bourgeoisie has an “unspoken annexation agenda for northern Cyprus and the north-west of Syria.”

According to Nalcaci, Turkey considers these locations in Cyprus and Syria “areas of Turkish dominion.”

Nalcaci argues that placing Syrian refugees within this agenda “appears to be aimed at changing the ethnic structure of northern Syria from west to east and establishing a sharia management model, as well as Turkish hegemony over a region that is economically and politically dependent on Turkey.”

Some opposition politicians argue against hosting Afghan and Syrian refugees due to the possibility of AKP using them against their domestic political opponents.

Nalcaci agrees with this claim, saying “refugees provided a suitable basis for building a rented jihadist army if they needed it, just like in northern Syria.”

Turkey as a buffer zone for Europe

A further aspect is Turkey’s role in EU refugee policy. In 2016, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement on refugees. This was a re-admission agreement and had three important aspects.

Turkey would take any measure necessary to stop people travelling irregularly from Turkey to the Greek islands; anyone who arrived on the islands irregularly from Turkey could be returned to Greece; and for every Syrian returned from the islands, the EU would accept one Syrian refugee who had waited inside Turkey.

In return, Turkey would receive six billion euros from the EU.

Human right groups and the Turkish opposition have criticized this refugee agreement. In 2013, before the deal, Turkey had re-adjusted its Law on Foreigners and International Protection to the EU legislation.

According to Nalcaci, due to imperialist interventions and poor economic situations in their home countries, people have been forced to turn to the west as a better option for living conditions, and this mass migration is a threat to western imperialism.

Nalcaci claims that in the face of this migration, it is obvious that the EU used Turkey as a buffer country to attract qualified workforce and overlook refugees in Turkey, rather than in their own territory.

However, the AKP ambition to create a dependent area in northern Syria may backfire. On one hand, Nalcaci says, Syrian refugees are valued by the AKP as an expansionist tool in the region. On the other hand, he says, it is impossible for the imperialist mind to not anticipate that up to 10 million refugees in Turkey would create instability and open an area of ​​intervention.

An opposition smeared by the same brush

The views of the main Turkish opposition barely differ from those of the AKP government in relation to the Syrian problem. A north Cyprus-type ‘solution’ to the Syrian crisis is also on the CHP (Republican People’s Party) agenda.

The leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has often promised to send Syrian refugees back to Syria “with a flourish of trumpets.”

The newcomer party of Zafer is also committed to the expulsion of the refugees. The party’s so-called Fortress Anadolu project claims to deal with eight million refugees in Turkey. Within this framework, Ozdag announced that a commission from Zafer was to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Neither the CHP nor the Zafer party responded to our questions.

Nalcaci underlines the opposition’s stand on Syria and its refugees: “They do not include any substantive foreign policy changes in their program. Moreover, they have always supported AKP initiatives in the parliament, especially the resolutions to send soldiers.”

The most anti-refugee politician Umit Ozdag and his party Zafer have not raised any objection to sending Turkish troops to Syria. When it comes to ‘national security,’ the opposition sings the same tune as the AKP.

Although CHP voted against the last motion to send Turkish troops to Iraq and Syria, battling the ‘national security’ narrative is a difficult task.

“The practice of establishing a hegemonic zone on Syrian territory will continue unless there is a great upheaval that overturns the situation,” Nalcaci asserts.

It seems that things will have to change in order to remain the same.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.