How Syria's War Is Affecting Turkey

By Soner Cagaptay

On January 21, members of the Turkish Youth Union (TGB), a far-left nationalist group, attacked German Patriot missile teams dispatched to help defend Turkey against threats from Syria. The incident served as a reminder of the unexpected ways in which the Syrian war could impact Turkey's stability. Ankara has become a direct player in the conflict through its support for armed and unarmed groups battling Bashar al-Assad's regime. Yet Turkey is also embroiled in the war in broader strategic terms, through its vulnerability to spillover along the 510-mile border with Syria. Washington should watch these spillover effects closely, as they risk straining Turkey's economy, accentuating its sectarian and political divisions, and compromising its overall stability.

THE COST OF SUPPORTING SYRIAN REFUGEES

Currently, over 163,000 Syrians are being housed in thirteen refugee camps and two temporary receiving centers in Turkey. Ankara is providing them with long-term accommodations, healthcare, and schooling opportunities; according to Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, such assistance is costing Turkey about $40 million per month.

In response to the influx, Ankara has established a Temporary Protection Regime based on an EU directive regarding mass displacements. The directive commits Turkey to guaranteeing temporary residence rights and access to basic services, but it does not give Syrian entrants access to the asylum system offered by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, nor does it include the right to work. Accordingly, Ankara is offering temporary asylum to anyone who crosses the border without a passport, but these people must agree to reside in a refugee camp. Many Syrians have reportedly evaded this rule by crossing the border illegally, while others enter with a passport but overstay their three-month residence window (in all, an estimated 70,000 have used travel documents to enter Turkey).

Thousands more refugees are stuck on the Syrian side of the border, in camps such as Atima next to Turkey's Cilvegozu crossing. Despite the efforts of public and private Turkish aid groups and donations from abroad, they are living in dismal conditions. The backlog of refugees suggests that even Ankara's considerable capacity has been strained by the task of processing, monitoring, and providing for such a large flow of people fleeing the violence.

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SECTARIAN SPILLOVER

Given the deep demographic ties between southern Turkey and northern Syria, Ankara also fears that sectarian violence next door could trigger parallel fault-lines at home. Turkey is home to over half-a-million Arab Alawites, coreligionists of Assad; most of them live in the southernmost Hatay province (they are sometimes called Nusayris; they are distinct from Turkish Alevis, a community that is not close to Syria's Alawites). Some Turkish Alawites are unabashedly pro-Assad, with demonstrators in the south reportedly carrying his portrait and chanting against Ankara and Washington's Syria policy.

More commonly, Alawites in Turkey acknowledge the necessity of Assad's demise but worry about how the regime's collapse will affect their safety. A nearly ubiquitous fear is that Sunni militants returning to Turkey from battling Assad will turn their rancor against them. Ankara has already taken some measures to prevent those sorts of sectarian conflagrations, such as moving certain Sunni Arab refugees into camps in interior Turkey, away from the Sunni-Alawite-mixed Hatay province. Yet the problem bears monitoring because Assad's fall could alter its nature and scope.

RALLYING THE EXTREME LEFT

Turkey's radical leftist groups and other extremists have mobilized against Ankara's cooperation with NATO and Washington during the Syria crisis. The country's political landscape still bears vestiges of violent leftist movements from the 1970s, as well as deeply anti-American ultranationalism. More recently, these small but active movements have rallied against the deployment of Patriot missiles in the south; they were behind last week's attack on Patriot teams arriving in the Hatay port of Iskenderun, firing smoke grenades at NATO soldiers and burning American flags.

 

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Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. His publications include the forthcoming book "Turkey Rising: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power."

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