Erdogan’s plan to naturalise Syrians proves divisive

Sunday 17/07/2016
Syrian refugee weaving carpet at workshop near town of Kilis

Each time Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan presents a new project, it becomes divisive, leading to more tears in the country’s frayed social fabric.

A debate has been raging over what is widely seen as a contro­versial promise to naturalise the Syrians who, since the early days of the war, have sought refuge in Turkey. Official estimates are that there are about 2.7 million such refugees, mainly settled in border provinces and Istanbul.

Erdogan dropped the political bombshell as he addressed a crowd in the border town of Kilis on July 3rd, just before Eid al-Fitr.

“I’d like to give a piece of good news to my [Syrian] siblings,” he said. “There are those who desire Turkish citizenship. We shall give them the possibility.”

For Erdogan, a master of political agenda setting, it may have been an attempt to divert attention from the rapproche­ment with Israel and his apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin for downing a Russian warplane. The debate the pro­posal unleashed, however, created a bigger backlash than he probably anticipated.

First, experts and independent pundits agreed that the move added to the pattern of what they see as Erdogan’s unconstitutional behaviour.

The issue is within the domain of the government, run by a prime minister, and demands a debate and vote in parliament. Experts also said that, because of the large number of those pledged citizen­ship, the plan requires a referen­dum.

Second, the opposition said the plan is part of Erdogan’s large-scale political and demographic engineering.

The more Erdogan detailed his idea that those Syrians granted citizenship would be settled in newly built cluster housing complexes in border provinces, voices across the opposition, topped by the Kurdish politicians, said the aim was to manipulate elections so that presumably grateful Syrians would vote for Erdogan’s Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP).

The People’s Democracy Party (HDP) dominance in the polls in the mainly Kurdish region would likely be weakened by the new Sunni-Arab voters. Calculations show, if the plan were followed, by 2019 about 1.5 million natural­ised Syrians would gain the right to vote.

Erdogan’s critics see this as a path to legitimise a fully empow­ered presidential system replac­ing the current one and realise his autocratic ambitions in a referen­dum where the votes of those of Syrian origin may play a key role.

The main opposition Republi­can People’s Party (CHP), which has many Alevis in its voter base, raised other concerns.

A CHP deputy, Erdogan Toprak, claimed the plan means an “import of Salafist warfare into Turkish soil”.

Non-governmental organisa­tions questioned why the Syrians were not granted refugee status with work and residence permits, a debate that sparked anti-Syrian sentiments across Turkey as some nationalist segments of the media published xenophobic headlines.

In a week in two towns — Konya and Beysehir — violence erupted against Syrians. Two people were killed.

Anger among ruling party supporters has also come to the surface. “‘They have their homeland. Let them go and take it back. We did not win back our country easily. We had to fight for it. I am annoyed by all this,” the BBC quoted one person as saying.

The silence of the European Union points to one thing: Germany and others have reason to be content, as Erdogan’s move would ease the refugee exodus to Europe. However, if imple­mented, Erdogan’s project could end the Turkish hopes for visa-free EU travel because of enhanced security concerns.

One element leaves little doubt for some observers: Erdogan’s latest move, like many others, reflects a growing gap between his and the ruling AKP’s interests and those of the country.