Erdogan is Cooling Towards Syrians in Turkey as Elections Loom

Published May 22nd, 2018 - 10:49 GMT
A supporter holds a scarf with image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during pre-election rally in Sarajevo, May 20, 2018.  Erdogan holds today the only election rally outside Turkey ahead of June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections. Sarajevo was chosen after several EU countries, including Germany, banned such rallies. (Oliver Bunic, AFP/File Photo) 
A supporter holds a scarf with image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during pre-election rally in Sarajevo, May 20, 2018. Erdogan holds today the only election rally outside Turkey ahead of June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections. Sarajevo was chosen after several EU countries, including Germany, banned such rallies. (Oliver Bunic, AFP/File Photo) 

By Eleanor Beevor

Hostility towards Syrian refugees in Turkey has spiked as campaigning for a snap election is getting underway. This has left Syrians in fear of backlash during the campaign itself, and of what may happen afterwards. At the centre of it all, the sitting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now engaged in a tricky balancing act.

Erdogan, who nurses ambitions to be seen as a new leader of the Muslim world, made vocal commitments to protect Syrians who fled to Turkey during the Syrian war. But whilst appeals to Pan-Islamic solidarity may have brought him international prestige, it has also cost him in terms of domestic support.

Starting the Elections campaign early. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Canakkale, western Turkey, 18, March, 2018, (AFP/File Photo)

Turkish nationalism engineered

He is going to have to contend with a faltering economy, coupled with a powerful sense of Turkish nationalism that he himself helped to engineer. Meanwhile, opposition parties have found themselves able to co-opt that nationalistic sentiment, and turn Syrian refugees into an easy target of blame for the country’s woes.

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington D.C., told Al Bawaba:

“As the Turkish economy deteriorates, the opposition parties are aware of the fact that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is on the verge of losing mass support. That is why they would link their nationalist tone with the economic problems of the country. Erdogan’s nationalist discourse is a double-edged sword. The more evident his contradictions, the more nationalist criticism he has faced.”

Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, greets his supporters during a rally in Zonguldak ,May 21, 2018. Ince, 54, is seeking to convince voters he is a credible choice as he runs against the incumbent Turkish president in the June 24 elections, which will be a landmark in modern Turkish history. (Adem Altan, AFP/File Photo)

The most significant challenge to Erdogan’s AKP will come from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). True, the CHP is likely to attract significantly less of the vote share than the AKP. A recent poll put support for the AKP at 48%, while the CHP’s support was at around 21%. However, the CHP is not without potential coalition partners. It already has one in the form of the new Iyi Party, which took 12% of the hypothetical vote share in the poll.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also took 10%. (10% is the minimum vote share a party needs to enter Parliament). Erdogan’s AKP has also committed to an electoral alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party, a far-right nationalist party, and between the two they are expected to claim over 50% of the vote share.

Meral Aksener, leader and presidential candidate of the Turkish opposition party 'Good Party' (IYI) waves to the crowd as she arrives to deliver a speech during an election campaign rally, in Ankara, on, May 14, 2018. (Adem Altan, AFP/File Photo)

Anti-Syrian rhetoric

However, nothing is won yet, and for now the opposition parties have found anti-Syrian rhetoric a convenient vector for attacking Erdogan. The CHP has alleged that Syrians are now receiving preferential access to public services. Its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was quoted as saying that in “some places, like hospitals in Turkey, where Turks are treated as second-class citizens because priority is given to Syrian refugees”.

The CHP are not alone in fostering resentment towards Syrians, and nor is this exclusively a phenomenon of the election. The Hrant Dink Foundation, a social science research unit in Istanbul, has monitored hate speech towards Syrian refugees in Turkish print media over a number of years.

They have found that Syrians are repeatedly blamed for the nation’s economic difficulties, and are characterized as ungrateful, and even as a terrorism and a health risk. But now that the stakes have been raised politically, so have the risks towards the refugees themselves.

Nostalgia to imperial past

Syrian refugees in Turkey. There are roughly 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey serving as ‘time-bomb’ in this election. (AFP/File Photo)

For a time, Erdogan thought he could evade the contradiction between his push for Turkish nationalism and his Pan-Islamic ambitions. Appealing to a hunger for a Turkish global leadership, and even to nostalgia for an imperial past, was one way around it.

But now that political pressure, the media and the economy are biting, it is the Syrian refugees who risk paying the biggest price. Gareth Jenkins, a Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, told Al Bawaba:

“Erdogan and his supporters still believe that the Arabs share their fond memories of the Ottoman Empire, and that Muslims in general look to Turkey for leadership and as the spokesperson for the sufferings of the Muslim, and particularly the Sunni masses. In his public statements, Erdogan repeatedly cites the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to support this claim. But he has talked himself into a major dilemma. He is aware that the continued presence of so many Syrian refugees in Turkey raises the risk of severe social disruption – particularly as the economy is in deep trouble. The greatest risk faced by the Syrian refugees is an eruption of social tensions and more sustained attacks.”

The situation is not helped by a sense that Erdogan had his own political interests at heart when he formulated his policies towards Syrians. In 2016, Erdogan appeared to offer Syrian refugees in Turkey the chance to obtain Turkish citizenship.

This was always going to be a far more selective offer than it appeared – only highly skilled refugees would likely have been granted it. Nevertheless, the move was very controversial domestically. This was not only because of existing economic concerns and anti-Syrian sentiment, but also because of suspicion that Erdogan wanted to expand a conservative, Sunni support base. Gareth Jenkins continued:

“Erdogan never really pushed for several million Syrians to be given Turkish citizenship. The idea of giving a large number of them citizenship was floated and then almost immediately shelved in the face of opposition from Erdogan’s own core support. Erdogan had been calculating that, if made Turkish citizens, the Syrians would vote for him. But the idea was so unpopular with his own followers that he risked losing even more support from Turks who had previously voted for him.

I think that the suspicion is partly justified. There have been several instances in which the Erdogan regime has located Sunni Arab refugees in areas in eastern Anatolia which were previously dominated by Alevis or Kurds. And, of course, it also doing the same in the areas it now controls in northern Syria. But this demographic engineering has not yet been done on a major scale inside Turkey.”

Progressively tougher

Despite the fact that the AKP’s poll numbers make them the likely victor of the June 24th election, Erdogan is not going to take too many chances. He has been getting progressively tougher on Syrians trying to enter Turkey.

Syrians used to be allowed to cross the Turkish-Syrian border to visit home for a few days at a time. Now the border is completely closed, save for the last few days of Ramadan. Reports of forced deportations back to Syria, though illegal, are not uncommon. And while there are still no concrete plans to begin mass deportations of Syrians, the AKP is now mirroring the opposition parties, insisting that refugees must return to Syria once the war is over.

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees themselves can do little but wait anxiously. Abdulwahed, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey with his wife and children, told Al Bawaba:

“We have occasionally met Turks who have openly frowned at our presence in Turkey. The main opposition parties are trying to make gains, claiming that rents are soaring, that Syrians are stealing jobs, and that they pose a security threat. The majority of the opposition parties promised that they would send Syrian refugees before the end of next year if they won the elections.

Right now, I am working as online teacher, but this would not be possible if I were forced to go back in Syria. Even if I were able to work back at the university in Syria, my salary there wouldn’t exceed $200. If Erdogan loses the election, we might be forced to go back to Syria, which for me sounds like the end of world.”

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