Syrians scapegoated in Turkey

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has been playing on hostility to Syrian refugees as a way of directing attention away from its own shortcomings, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Syrians scapegoated in Turkey
Syrian shop signs are everywhere in Turkish neighbourhoods (photo: AP)

Popular resentment against Syrian refugees in Turkey is mounting by the day, with Turkish social media circulating video clips such as one of a woman shouting at some Syrians in a market place in Turkey “go back to your country and fight your own war!”

The climate is not lacking in farcical moments, but they do not hide the true nature of the problem. Eleven Syrians in Turkey were recently arrested and now face deportation for posting videoclips of themselves “provocatively” eating bananas. Their postings, which went viral two weeks ago, were a reaction to another video of a young man exploding at a Syrian woman in Turkey that “I can’t afford to eat bananas, but you all buy them by the dozen.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey is playing on such sentiments as a means of directing anger at the country’s economic straits away from the government and to fire the zeal of its ultra-right-wing base.

The Turkish authorities said they had arrested seven foreign nationals as a result of an investigation into the controversial videos. The figure then rose to 11 Syrians charged with “inciting hatred” and “insulting the Turkish people.”

According to Turkish rights activists, the “provocative” trend of videos of Syrians eating bananas was a satirical commentary on the mounting hostility towards refugees in Turkey against the backdrop of the plummeting lira.

Nevertheless, the announcement that the arrested Syrians now face deportation came as a surprise to some analysts. It “shows a bankruptcy of policy,” said Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, in comments to the website Al-Monitor.

“Do the Syrians have no right to express their views when they are faced with discrimination or use sarcasm against anti-refugee myths? What does this say about freedom of expression” in Turkey, he asked.

Myths about Syrian refugees abound. It is widely believed in Turkey that they are entitled to free tuition at Turkish universities, five-digit monthly salaries, and free medical care. It is even said they can get 50 per cent reductions at the furniture seller IKEA.

Moreover, despite provisions in international and Turkish law prohibiting the expulsion of refugees, especially to countries where their lives would be threatened, another Turkish ultranationalist party, the Zafer (Victory) Party (ZP), was recently founded to campaign for just that.

The Turkish government’s intensification of its military activities in Syria is directly related to such domestic developments. Opposition circles believe that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is manoeuvring to deflect public opinion away from troubles at home ahead of the looming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

It certainly would not be the first time that Erdogan has used a military buildup against the Kurds in Syria to rally support around him and his party and to divide the opposition.

According to Fehim Tastekin, a Turkish columnist, Turkey has five new targets for a possible offensive in Syria, with the foremost among them being the US-backed Syrian Kurdish groups, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their affiliates.

Nevertheless, even though the Turkish parliament has just granted the government a two-year extension on its mandate for military operations in Syria, carrying out another incursion into the north of the country would still need the green light from Moscow and Washington.

Without it, the troops that Turkey has already amassed on its border with Syria will remain no more than muscle flexing.   

Quoting Turkish press reports, Tastekin said that Ankara had recently invited the leaders of Syrian rebel groups to a briefing on “tactics and strategies for a fourth military campaign in Syria” that would involve some 35,000 troops advancing on two main flanks.

“The four target areas are reportedly Tel Rifaat and Manbij in northern Aleppo and Ain Issa and Tel Tamer to the east of the Euphrates,” Tastekin said. “Ankara is reportedly also considering extending the offensive to Kobani on the Turkish border to cut off connections between Qamishli and Manbij and link areas controlled by Turkish-backed rebels” in Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad and in Jarablus, Al-Rai and Al-Bab.

According to a Turkish official cited by Bloomberg and as reported by Tastekin, the incursion “is meant to seal more than two thirds of Turkey’s 910 km (560 mile) frontier with Syria.”

But the road will not be smooth for Erdogan, and he might “look into hell,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin is rumoured to have warned him according to leaks from the two men’s last summit in Sochi in late September.

Syrian forces in the vicinity of Idlib have reportedly declared an “unprecedented state of high alert” at several locations, including the Taftanaz air base, Binnish and Sarmin, Tastekin said.

“Meanwhile, Russia’s air campaigns have expanded towards the Turkish border, and in addition to the reinforcements at Tel Rifaat and the Minnig air base, additional Syrian government troops have been dispatched to several villages in the countryside north of Aleppo, including Tel Madiq and Tel Zawayan.”

Such activity suggests an impending Syrian regime operation to regain more territory from Turkish-backed forces in Idlib.

For an operation against the Kurds to the north to succeed, Turkey would want to access Syrian air space. According to Tastekin, there has been speculation that Turkey might sacrifice some of its military observation posts in Idlib near the M4 highway in return for a Russian green light to use Syrian air space. But would Russia agree to such a tradeoff?

As for the US green light that Erdogan also needs, this is probably even less likely given the still cold relations between the Biden administration and Ankara.

The Turkish press gave considerable coverage to a phone call on 23 October between Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in which Kalin stressed his government’s determination to fight all terrorist groups, including the People’s Protection Units, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State (IS) group.

However, most observers have read this news as posturing for the purposes of domestic consumption.

Turkish public opinion is looking grim for Erdogan and the AKP, according to recent opinion polls, and the country’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), voted against the bill to extend the mandate for military operations in Syria.

“In matters involving military considerations,” Tastekin said, “the CHP has traditionally heeded signals from the general staff. Hence, the party’s veto is an important sign of unease within the establishment.”

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