Uncertainty for Syrians in Turkey as opposition warms to Assad

Growing anti-Syrian refugee sentiment has led many to question the fate of Syrians should the AKP party be voted out.

Opposition leaders in Turkey have vowed not to 'surrender' neighbourhoods to Syrians and to send refugees back home [File: Adem Altan/AFP]

Istanbul, Turkey – Taha Elgazi says he is on a mission to meet anyone who hates refugees.

The 37-year-old fled the war in Syria in 2013 for Turkey, leaving behind his home in Deir Az Zor and a dream of obtaining a doctorate in cosmology. He has made important strides over the years in Istanbul, teaching physics for a time in schools for Syrian children, and being chosen as a skilled enough professional to obtain Turkish nationality, something fewer than 200,000 of 3.7 million Syrians like him in the country have been able to gain.

In the last few months, though, Elgazi has taken on a new challenge: to extricate Syrians and other refugees from a political discourse where their continued presence is increasingly at the forefront of electoral campaigning.

“In any society, not just Turkey, the street responds to what is said by politicians,” Elgazi told Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately, in recent times we have seen politicians in Turkey using hate speech and racist rhetoric towards Syrian refugees, and these statements have real-world results.”

From trending hashtags on social media calling for Syrians to be expelled en masse, to violent mob riots targeting Syrian neighbourhoods, every week in Turkey seems to bring new signs of tension between the refugees and the locals.

In an effort to change that dynamic, Elgazi and more than a dozen others – a grassroots group of Syrian and Turkish refugee rights activists – have been holding closed-door meetings with representatives from parties across the country’s polarised political landscape. “We Syrians today do not want to favour any party or anyone, we hope to have them see refugees from a humane perspective, and not from a political perspective,” he said.

Elgazi said the goal of the meetings is simple: to have each party commit to a charter that says they will not make the refugee issue a part of their electoral campaigns. “We are looking for an agreement between parties that holds them accountable, that they will not use refugees, whether Syrian or Afghan or others, for domestic politics in Turkey.”

The effort has yielded some success: representatives, not only from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) but also the opposition, from centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the centre-right IYI Party, have met with Elgazi and the other activists over the past few months, offering, at least behind closed doors, pledges that they will not campaign on promises of forcibly returning Syrians to Syria.

Last month Elgazi even met with CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the largest opposition party, who has often said at stump speeches he plans to send Syrians back within two years of coming to power.

Turkey’s largest opposition parties have long called for a break with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy of hosting refugees and backing rebels in Syria. As signs of a possible change in government emerge in the country, opposition leaders are now seriously thinking of how to re-establish ties with Damascus and pave the way for sending the Syrian refugees home.

Polls show Erdogan’s job approval rating has fallen – from a high of 68 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in October – as has the prospect of the AKP winning the next election in June 2023. The AKP and its coalition partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, are polling at just under 40 percent, with the CHP, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), IYI Party, and the allied opposition, garnering just above the majority they would need to control parliament.

Anti-refugee sentiment, meanwhile, polls show, is something that cuts across party lines, prompting opposition parties to invoke the Syrian presence in hopes of drawing more votes away from Erdogan.

Opposition leaders in Turkey have campaign on slogans vowing not to “surrender” neighbourhoods to Syrians, and stump speeches have often included promises to send the refugees back home within a few years.

Reaching out to Assad

Ugur Poyraz, general secretary of the IYI Party, says his party does not seek to inflame anti-Syrian sentiments, but many Turks are rightly worried Erdogan lacks a long-term plan for refugees. Poyraz says if elected into a government, his party would offer a drastic break from the AKP’s policy of seeking to topple al-Assad.

While Turkey went on to face a threat from ISIL (ISIS) and Kurdish forces in Syria that did deserve a reaction, Poyraz says Erdogan’s initial decision to involve the country in the Syrian war, along with his support for other Arab Spring revolutions such as in Egypt, was driven by “emotional reflex”.

“This was a fundamental mistake Erdogan made,” he said. “They [the AKP] have now become captive, beholden, to their emotional, personal reflexes and turned them into government policy.”

With an eye towards the possibility of a new post-Erdogan relationship with Syria, Poyraz says the party formed a working group nearly two years ago to study not only the effects of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, but also how to create a pathway for their return to Syria. If elected to power, the IYI Party plans to reach out to the al-Assad government.

“We do believe it is in Turkey’s interests to have high level contacts [with the al-Assad government], to ensure peace and stability is maintained, in a mutually beneficial manner,” he said.

While the centre-right IYI Party has continued to support Turkish military engagement in Syria against Kurdish forces and ISIL, the country’s two largest opposition parties are both now calling for an end to such actions in Syria altogether.

The HDP, which enjoys large support in the majority Kurdish southeast along the Iraq-Syria border, has long called for Ankara not to send troops across the border, instead insisting autonomous Kurdish-dominated areas in northern Syria could provide a model for a stable future.

Nationalist sentiment in Turkey has made the HDP’s campaign unpopular, though. Ankara insists Kurdish groups across the border are allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which Turkey and its allies consider a terror group, and two of the three cross-border operations Turkey has launched have been aimed at dismantling those autonomous Kurdish-led zones of power.

Nearly all of the HDP’s locally elected officials in the southeast have been removed over allegations of ties to the PKK, its party leadership jailed, and it faces a blanket ban from prosecutors over alleged terror ties.

But last month CHP lawmakers joined the HDP in parliament, refusing to vote in favour of a two-year extension for authorising cross-border military operations in Syria.

“We voted against this motion this time because we simply think it is not possible to find a military solution to the Syrian quagmire anymore,” Unal Cevikoz, a former ambassador and career diplomat who now serves as the CHP’s chief foreign relations adviser, told Al Jazeera.

“And this is the tendency all over the world today. We have observed a similar situation in Afghanistan, with the US being in contact with the Taliban with the understanding they would withdraw their armed forces from Afghanistan, so I think today’s times oblige us to look for peaceful resolution to conflicts, and that is what we are also advocating [in Syria].”

While the CHP is not advocating forcing refugees back to Syria, Cevikoz says the party would take steps to encourage them to return on their own. “First of all, we would have a policy that would certainly start a kind of dialogue and communication with the existing Syrian authorities, with a view to preparing the necessary and sufficient conditions for them to return, certainly by their own choice.”

In a process the CHP hopes would take about two years, Cevikoz says Turkish investors would be encouraged to invest in Syria, and the UN and EU would be asked to help secure funding for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-torn country.

“And we would like to get some kind assurance from the Syrian government that those Syrians who return by their own choice will not be persecuted … alongside ensuring the economic conditions meet their needs for subsistence, their security is also very important, and that’s why we plan to talk and get that assurance that they will not be persecuted.”

The CHP has already tried to reach out to the al-Assad government, with limited success. In 2019, the party organised a conference to bring together stakeholders on Syria in Istanbul, but the Turkish foreign ministry did not grant visas for two people to represent al-Assad, including one Baath Party member, who were invited to join.

“We have top-level contacts and we exchange messages,” Cevikoz sad, “but there is no direct channel of communication, no functioning, existing channel for dialogue at the moment.”

In September, CHP leadership, including Cevikoz, visited the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, and met with its president, Nechirvan Barzani, to lay the groundwork for what the party hopes is a new track for regional diplomacy. The party would also like to organise visits to Damascus and Tehran, but Cevikoz says diplomatic relations would have to improve before that can happen.

‘Don’t make promises you cannot keep’

The Turkish opposition’s hopes of normalising relations with Damascus, and finding a way to reconstruct the country so refugees can return though, is not an easy task.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia has estimated at least $117bn in infrastructure damage and $324bn in losses in gross domestic product (GDP) because of the war.

Simply rebuilding infrastructure would require a far more complex effort than what the CHP has in mind, says Samir Hafez, a member of the AKP who advises Turkish officials on Syria. “Who is going to find this huge amount of money to rebuild Syria?” he told Al Jazeera.

Aside from the human toll in the war, there is a reality that living in Syria right now would be near impossible, even for someone who does not fear reprisal from the al-Assad government, Hafez says. Hundreds of hospitals and schools have been destroyed, militias have put up their own checkpoints, there is rampant inflation, and the public is grappling with widespread food and fuel shortages.

“Suppose you find the money to rebuild, even then we need 20 years to rebuild things, not two years,” he said. “Someone ought to tell Kilicdaroglu, don’t make promises you cannot keep. What you are doing is really just moving the public view in Turkey against Syrians, and if this is for a coming election, it’s going to look bad when you cannot deliver, for you and for Turkey.”

The CHP’s hope to obtain funding from Western countries too is unlikely to materialise, says Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

“The EU, its member states, the UK, US, and Canada, they are all linking reconstruction funds to a concrete plan on political transition in Syria. This shows once again how the discourse forwarded by the CHP so far has lots of soft points, and cannot materialise in the way it is being sold to its audience for the upcoming elections.”

Kadkoy says the biggest obstacle to normalising ties with Damascus, though, is the Turkish military presence inside Syria and its backing of rebel forces. “That is Damascus’s main request from Turkey, before they do anything, that Turkey withdraw its army, and stop supporting what are, according to Damascus, terror organisations in Idlib and other areas.”

Cevikoz, of the CHP, says with the war winding down in Syria, it is time instead for Ankara to work alongside Damascus in taking charge of cross-border security threats. “If we want to conduct our fight against international terrorism, be it ISIS or the PKK, or PYD, we need to be in dialogue with the Syrian authorities and we should conduct this fight together.”

That kind of overture to al-Assad’s government is what worries many Syrians in Turkey, though, including Elgazi. “If we have a guarantee of safety inside Syria, of the basic needs to make a living, personally, me and my family, of course we would return to Syria,” Elgazi said. “But the problem keeping Syrian refugees today from returning is not just economic, it’s the Assad regime, and this problem is still there.”

Source: Al Jazeera