Turkish government pitching Syria incursion as means of sending refugees back home

Erdogan has vowed to push the YPG all the way to the Iraqi border.
Sunday 04/02/2018
But will it work? Syrian refugees arrive at the Oncupinar border crossing in Turkey. (AFP)
But will it work? Syrian refugees arrive at the Oncupinar border crossing in Turkey. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Reacting to a growing animosity among Turks towards Syrian refugees one year before key elections, the Ankara government is selling the incursion into Syria as a step towards sending the more than 3 million newcomers home.

In the intervention, code-named Operation Olive Branch, Turkey has been sending troops and tanks into the region of Afrin in north-western Syria under the protection of aerial attacks. The move is Turkey’s third military intervention in Syria since 2016.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government say the incursion’s aim is to drive the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, out of the Afrin area. Erdogan has vowed to push the YPG all the way to the Iraqi border, hundreds of kilometres east of Afrin. Officials have also spoken about establishing a 30km-deep “security zone” in Syria along the border to prevent YPG members from attacking Turkey.

Government critics say Erdogan is using the operation to secure support of nationalist voters ahead of local, parliamentary and presidential elections next year. “Unfortunately, President Erdogan has started his campaign for the presidential elections by invading Afrin,” Hisyar Ozsoy, foreign relations representative of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said during a visit January 27 to the Council of Europe in France.

Promising voters that the 3.4 million Syrians who fled to Turkey will return home soon is part of Erdogan’s strategy. In several speeches since January 20, the president has said, “Operation Olive Branch will open the way to a repatriation of Syrians.”

“Our Syrian brothers who are with us will have the chance to return to their homes,” Erdogan on January 22 said. In a speech January 28, Erdogan said 130,000 Syrians had returned to their country after Turkey secured territory in Syria during previous incursions.

Other Turkish officials support Erdogan’s pledge to send the Syrians back home. Fatma Sahin, mayor of Gaziantep, a city close to the Syrian border that has taken in tens of thousands of Syrians, told the Hurriyet Daily News that many refugees were “waiting to go back to their homelands.”

She added a return of the refugees was “very important for us because it has been seven years of tremendous sacrifice. Seven years have put [a] big burden on Turkey.”

In a statement released after a January 23 meeting of Erdogan with his top security advisers, Ankara stressed that military operations in Syria would continue until Kurdish forces were defeated and until the “almost 3.5 million brothers living in our country, the rightful owners of Syria, can return to their homes safely.”

The government says it has spent about $30 billion to feed and house the 3.4 million Syrians that Turkey has taken in under its so-called open-door policy since the Syrian civil war started almost seven years ago. There are signs that the patience of Turkish voters with the refugees is wearing thin, as Syrians are increasingly seen as competitors in the labour and housing markets.

“They are working for extremely little money and without any insurance. Turks can’t compete with that,” Ibrahim, a street vendor in Istanbul who would only give his first name, said recently, referring to Syrian refugees.

Murat Erdogan, a professor at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul and an expert on migration, said the government was beginning to factor in that Turkish voters want the Syrians to go home. “Turks want to help the Syrians but they don’t want to share their future with them,” Erdogan, who is not related to the Turkish president, said. “Unease is growing day by day.”

A recent poll conducted by Murat Erdogan indicated that 80.2% of Turks asked said Syrians are culturally different from them, an increase of 10 percentage points since a similar poll in 2014. Three out of four respondents to the new poll said no Syrian should receive Turkish citizenship.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said in a recent report that tensions between Turks and Syrians were “driving inter-ethnic rivalries, socio-economic inequality and urban violence,” especially in big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.

“Incidents of intercommunal violence increased threefold in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016,” the report said. “At least 35 people died in these incidents during 2017, including 24 Syrians. The potential for anti-refugee violence is highest in the metropolitan areas of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir where host communities see Syrians as culturally different and resent their competition for low-wage jobs or customers, especially within the informal economy.”

Murat Erdogan said at a panel of the Brookings Institution in Washington on January 30 that it was hard for the Turkish government to accept that many Syrians would stay in the country for good because politicians had told their voters for years that the refugees were in Turkey for a limited time only.

While the Afrin operation was going to make integration efforts more difficult, the problems could not change the fact that the Syrians had become a part of Turkish life, Murat Erdogan said.

More than 300 Syrian children are born in Turkey every day and 1 million Syrians have found jobs in their new country. Refugees have spread out all over Turkey, he said. “It will not be easy to collect them and send them back,” Erdogan said. “That’s not realistic.”