The Turkish government’s condemnation of a spate of attacks on “our brothers and sons”, the Syrian refugees in Turkey, and its vow to hand down the harshest penalties against “the thugs and inciters” to violence have elicited diverse reactions. Some see them as genuine and heartfelt, others read as hollow and insincere — an exercise in dutiful but carefully worded rhetoric by a ruling party fearful of alienating a segment of its voting base. Regardless of how one interprets official statements, it is impossible to deny that Turks, as a whole, are fed up with the burden of supporting millions of refugees; perhaps with the support of opposition parties, many have begun to protest.
According to sources familiar with government circles in Ankara, it is not true that “a gathering of conspiratorial hooligans who are the exception, not the rule” is to blame for the violence committed against refugees. Security agencies have been mysteriously mute in response to individual and mob attacks against Syrian homes, cars, stores and other property. According to eyewitness accounts supported by videos, the police have been slow to intervene, overtly sympathetic with protestors and reluctant to block their angry march against neighbourhoods with significant concentrations of refugees.
Officers were even filmed advising members of a mob on how to behave and to avoid moving in large numbers. Such indulgence and solicitousness in a country where there is little tolerance for protest is not hard to explain. The police suffer from the same economic straits as the bulk of Turkish citizens, many of whom are now venting their anger and frustration against immigrants and refugees whom Turks feel are keeping them out of jobs, business and other activities.
There are currently around 3.57 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. According to a recent survey conducted by Metropoll, a leading Turkish polling company, 66.5 per cent of Turks want their country’s borders closed to all refugees regardless of provenance and the “occupiers” deported back to their homelands.
Anti-immigrant violence, such as the massive attack that took place last week in a neighbourhood in Ankara with a large Syrian population, is not new. It is the latest episode in a long tale of mounting anger and resentment, fuelled by rising unemployment and declining living standards and increasingly directed against the people the government hosts and who “are putting us out of jobs and taking away our livelihoods,” as one protester put it.
The expression of such sentiments is becoming increasingly fierce and brutal. In July a 17-year-old Syrian was beaten to death in Bursa after he tried to defend a Syrian woman being harassed by a gang of young Turks. Another young man would meet the same fate several weeks later.
International reports have documented the rise in the severity and frequency of physical attacks not just against Syrian refugees but also against Kurdish citizens of Turkey. In fact, this is not surprising given the Turkish regime’s swerve to the far right since the coup attempt five years ago. Observers have no doubt that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to court the ultra-nationalist right and his polarising ethnocentric rhetoric that vilifies opposition movements and, above all, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has stoked racism, hatred, extremist violence and fanaticism.
As observers from the opposition see it, xenophobic, ethnicity-related violence is the domestic face of the foreign policies of an aggressive, authoritarian regime that uses refugees as a means to blackmail the West and humanitarian relief as a means to gain financial support and emotional leverage. It is part of the backfire from a Syrian policy that is at once belligerent and cynical.
If Ankara offered Turkish nationality to merchants from Aleppo, it was so they could move their businesses and assets into Turkey. In Syria, it used Syrian oil and antiquities to pay for the weapons to arm and train its allied militias which it used, firstly, to fight Syrian Kurds in areas near the border with Turkey and, secondly, as mercenaries to send to Libya and elsewhere.
The foregoing are among the chief reasons the opposition believes that the Turkish government is fully responsible for the bloodshed and destruction of property suffered by Syrian refugees, Kurds and other minorities. The opposition also believes that recent arrests of suspected attackers have been largely for show. They point to the intensive television coverage of the arrests, after which suspects are quickly released or, in the rare event that charges are brought against them, acquitted. Lax law enforcement here has further encouraged violence against refugees and minorities.
To Erdogan, both the attacks and the criticisms are the work of conspirators bent on bringing down the rising Turkish power and sowing discord among “brethren of the same faith.” There is no difference between the Turk, the Syrian or Afghani, so goes the official rhetoric. Turkey will not slacken in its defence and protection of those who seek refuge in Turkey, which opens its arms to them until they are able to peacefully return to their homes. Meanwhile, according to reports in the Turkish press, over 37,000 irregular migrants have been deported in the past seven months, a third from war-torn Afghanistan.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) internet trolls have been as zealous as ever in their defence of the regime and its Syrian policy. “There will be no comprising on Syria and the Syrian people,” they proclaim nearly a decade after Erdogan launched his campaign against the Bashar Al-Assad regime, vowing to pray in the Umayyad Mosque in just a few months. The trolls also threaten revenge against opposition forces and critics, whom they call crypto-Jews and Freemasons who will never attain their aims now that the wise rule of Erdogan has exposed their cunning and deception.
A platform has been created for Turkey’s guests to express their unbounded gratitude. The formulas are quite similar, and go: We thank the Turkish government for all the sacrifices it made for us. We pray the day will come when we are able to repay this eternal debt to Erdogan who, with every passing day, proves that he is the strongest Muslim leader of our times.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly