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Long way to Afrin: Turkey’s strategic refugee policy aimed at electoral hegemony and regional political ambitions

Syrian ‘guests’ in Turkey have been used not only as political tools for foreign ambitions, but also for reinforcing the conservative and Islamist ideology promoted by Erdogan’s AKP.

lead Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, FSA, fighters in the Syrian town of Azez near the border with Turkey, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. Depo Photos/ Press Association. All rights reserved. On January 20, Turkey began its second military campaign in northern Syria. The target is Afrin, a Kurdish-majority canton and stronghold of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military alliance led by the People’s Protection Unit (YPG).

The Turkish intervention is backed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), comprised of several Syrian opposition groups such as the Islamic Ahrar Al-Sham and the Hamza Brigade. Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ objective is aimed at neutralising the YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist group and offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militia involved in an ongoing conflict with the Turkish state since the eighties.

However, Washington has for long regarded the YPG as its best ally in the Middle East, thanks to the crucial role played by the Kurds in the US-led campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The most striking difference between the two Turkey-led interventions lies in the fact that while the former was launched against the Islamic State, the latter is allegedly being conducted with the support of ISIS fighters, to destroy Syrian Kurdish militias.

This military intervention follows the ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ launched in Northern Syria in 2016. The Turkey-led operation was supported by the FSA against ISIS and the YPG/SDF. The most striking difference between the two Turkey-led interventions lies in the fact that while the former was launched against the Islamic State, the latter is allegedly being conducted with the support of ISIS fighters, to destroy Syrian Kurdish militias.

The international players

This operation launched by Ankara against the US-backed YPG has exacerbated the tense and delicate relations between the several international players involved in the Syrian war, and not only between the two NATO allies.

The military intervention jeopardises Washington’s diplomatic relations in the region, as well as the fragile agreements between Iran, Turkey and Russia borne out of the recent Sochi conference hosted by Moscow and strongly boycotted by the Syrian opposition.

Russia and Iran have been the Syrian regime’s best allies since the beginning of the conflict. In spite of having maintained positive relations with the Kurds, Russia approved the Afrin operation, which was key to its launch because it allowed Turkey access to Syrian airspace. Russia’s support for Ankara’s ambitions risks compromising the Russian-Syrian historical cooperation which was pivotal to Bashar al-Assad’s enduring power. After the Afrin operation triggered a ‘crisis point’ between Ankara and Washington, the US Secretary of State Tillerson and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu attempted to normalise their relations and to search for agreement over Syria.

Shia’ militias backed by the Syrian government entered Afrin to support the Kurdish resistance against Ankara’s attacks. Indeed, the SDF might need the Syrian government’s military support, since Washington is likely to suspend its strategic alliance with the Kurds. After the Afrin operation triggered a ‘crisis point’ between Ankara and Washington, the US Secretary of State Tillerson and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu attempted to normalise their relations and to search for agreement over Syria.

Waging war against the Syrian Kurds with Syrian Sunni troops is going to further exacerbate sectarian hatred and deepen the grudges in the region.

The FSA and Turkish state security

Before investigating the reasons behind Erdogan’s war on the Kurds in Syria, let’s look at the factors underpinning the FSA’s alliance with Ankara.

Ethnic tension between Kurds and Sunni Arabs is surely not a sufficiently convincing explanation. On the one side, the FSA’s resentment against the PYD arises out of the accusation that the Kurds are complicit with the Syrian regime, and that they are taking territories previously controlled by the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebels’ worst enemy remains President Bashar al-Assad; is the FSA simply taking the chance to gain more territories and confront the Syrian Army, or is this alliance with Turkey concealing other factors? Recent developments might have motivated Syrians in Turkey, many of whom have no military background, to embrace Ankara’s tireless battle against the Kurds.

Turkey is currently hosting more than three million Syrian refugees, mainly in Istanbul and in the provinces of the South-East. This was promoted as the result of a generous ‘Open Door Policy’ which made Syrians fleeing war welcome in Turkey as guests, despite not being formally recognised as refugees, such was the rhetoric built around the values of compassion and the duty of Islamic fraternity. However, other minority groups in Turkey claim that this Islamic paternalism is more likely to conceal an attempt to ‘sunnify’ Turkish society, radicalise Islam and gain political support, particularly by settling Syrian refugees in areas where the HDP gained more votes in recent elections. An informant who requested to stay anonymous observed an ongoing attempt to relocate Syrian refugees into Kurdish destroyed cities such as Nusaybin, Cizre and Sur, the historical neighborhood of Diyarbakir.

An informant who requested to stay anonymous observed an ongoing attempt to relocate Syrian refugees into Kurdish destroyed cities such as Nusaybin, Cizre and Sur, the historical neighborhood of Diyarbakir. The Turkification of the Kurdish-populated regions through the settlement of immigrants rings a bell among those familiar with Turkish history. The Settlement Law 2510 issued in 1934 by the newly born Turkish republic aimed at shaping demographic structures to promote assimilation and nationalism, in the name of state security.

Foreign policy tools?

While doing research on the humanitarian implications of the state of emergency declared after the failed coup in July 2016, I conducted interviews with Turkish and foreign aid workers in the South-East, coping with the government’s crackdown on humanitarian organisations and civil society groups there. The findings of this research disclosed the government’s attempt to securitise foreign aid and monopolise civil society, and the impact of such strategies on internally displaced persons.

One human rights activist interviewed in Istanbul claimed that the Turkish government has been using Syrians as foreign policy tools. Through a charity-based assistance, focused on the provision of basic needs, Ankara’s generosity has gained a huge approving consensus among refugees. The number of Syrian children born in Turkey and named after President Recep Tayyip is a clear example of how this open door policy has nurtured the construction of a mythical aura around Erdogan’s persona. Several practitioners interviewed during my fieldwork argued that since the government endeavoured to control the education offered to refugees, it has taken a much more religious and nationalist turn. This shapes young Syrians – increasingly integrated in Turkey – as strongly aligned with the AKP ideology. The Turkification of Syrian refugees would ultimately benefit the government when these guests are granted citizenship, an initiative already proposed by Erdogan. The Turkification of the Kurdish-populated regions through the settlement of immigrants rings a bell among those familiar with Turkish history.

Another practitioner working in a humanitarian NGO in the South-East raised their concern about the inaccessibility of the camps set up by the state, where no NGO is allowed to enter, unless for a very limited time and under strict surveillance: “If you have a closed place where no one can enter, you can train the people however you want”.

Trainings for FSA members in Turkish military camps, facilitated by the United States, have been ongoing for several years. However, these might become surrogates for humanitarian assistance in exchange for political support when trainees receive  salary, food and shelter – all from the Turkish government.

Saviour or recruiting agent?

Many Syrians would be tempted to view the Turkish government as a benevolent saviour after the state has provided them with dozens of camps, food security and medical assistance. Nevertheless, this can be seen as the outcome of the government’s attempt to monopolise humanitarian efforts and clamp down on international NGOs and local civil society organisations. Several organisations argue that governmental agencies such as AFAD are monopolising the field of civil society, which is an evident paradox when considering that civil society should be a space for citizens beyond the state.

Through interviews with civil society actors, international and local aid workers in the South-East of Turkey, I have investigated the reasons underpinning the politically motivated crack down on NGOs. On the one side, this is strongly intertwined with the renewed conflict in the Kurdish region of Turkey and the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015. Moreover, having a monopoly over humanitarian and development aid would ensure Ankara’s role in the reconstruction of its neighboring war torn country. Lastly, the government has sustained and established pro-government conservative organisations in order to refine the shape of civil society and widen its political support. Through interviews with civil society actors, international and local aid workers in the South-East of Turkey, I have investigated the reasons underpinning the politically motivated crack down on NGOs.

In short, it is evident that both the open door policy and the monopolisation of the aid system have become useful strategic tools that have allowed the Turkish government to earn loyal support not only within its citizens, but also among Syrians, to the point that the most recent arrivals are willing to back the Turkish army in the offense against the Syrian Kurds.

Threatening Erdogan’s political hegemony

Ankara believes that a Kurdish corridor in Syria near the Turkish border would motivate the Kurds to demand and fight for an autonomous region in Turkey, which would undermine the integrity of the state. The conflict between the PKK and the state has lasted for more than thirty years and cost around 40,000 lives.

However, it was the AKP who endeavoured to put an end to the so-called 'Kurdish question' as part of its political strategy after 2007. Henri Barkey in “The Transformation of Turkey’s Kurdish Question” (2017) describes how the AKP attempted to end hostilities between the state and the Kurds to reduce spending and economic costs, limit the military’s power and favour Erdogan’s foreign policy aspirations.

Moreover, the AKP established a substantial electoral base in the South-Eastern provinces, and used different forms of state paternalism to gain consent among poorer Kurdish communities in the region. Erdogan’s reconciliation policy culminated with the beginning of a peace process between the state and the PKK in 2013.

But the peace negotiations were soon interrupted and violence resumed when the HDP overcame the 10% electoral threshold during the June 2015 elections, becoming the third largest party in parliament. Many Kurds who traditionally voted for Erdogan envisioned the HDP as a valid alternative to the AKP. This pro-Kurdish party, which gained much greater secularist and leftist consent, suddenly became a threat to Erdogan’s political hegemony, who shortly afterwards called for early elections, in November 2015.

It has been argued that the AKP triggered the escalation of violence to raise nationalist anger against the PKK and undermine the HDP’s credibility in the November elections. Indeed, 1.2 million HDP voters switched in favour of the AKP from the June to the November elections. The blessing of a large Sunni population displaced in Turkey and leading a military offensive in Syria can be a tantalising second chance for Erdogan to remedy his failed policy following the Arab uprising.

Turkey’s historic Kurdish question might have turned from threatening the integrity of the state, in the early years of the PKK, to jeopardising Erdogan’s political party.

Gaining the support of Syrian refugees is a strategic initiative to bolster the conservative and nationalist society that the AKP is endeavouring to construct, and thus eradicate any ideological and political alternative that might arise from a Kurdish front.

Receiving the blessing of a large Sunni population displaced in Turkey and leading a military offensive in Syria can be a tantalising second chance for Erdogan to remedy his failed policy following the Arab uprising. Ultimately, his plans to become a political and international leader of the Sunni hemisphere of the Muslim world.

About the author

Eva Jones ( a pseudonym) has an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She recently conducted field research in southeastern Turkey. She has worked in the humanitarian sector in Lebanon and currently in the UK. 


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