The War Next Door: How Syria Is Shaping Politics in Turkey

The War Next Door: How Syria Is Shaping Politics in Turkey

The War Next Door: How Syria Is Shaping Politics in Turkey


5 min read

Rising Religious Prejudice and Violence

The Syrian war is increasing religious prejudice and the risk of communal violence in southeast Turkey. The war has also increased prospects for a finalised Turkish-Kurdish settlement. However, violence could resume if mutual expectations are dashed in the coming months. It has produced four million refugees, with the largest numbers in Turkey (1.7 million) followed by Lebanon (1.2 million) and Jordan (0.7 million). Although Turkey is no stranger to immigrant and refugee waves, the Syrian influx is unique for its magnitude, pace, and geographic concentration. Turkey's 24 government-run camps, now at full capacity, only house 15 per cent of refugees, so some 1.4 million refugees live alongside locals. Turks in five border provinces are now living in towns where refugees range from nine to 52 per cent of the population. Such towns now resemble others in Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinian and now Syrian refugees dwarf indigenous populations.

President Tayyip Erdogan's 'open-door policy' towards Syrian refugees is hotly contested in Turkey. Most Turks believe Syrian refugees undermine social peace, and estimates suggest as many of 86 per cent of Turks oppose their entry. Many have criticised Ankara's decision to spend 5 billion dollars on refugees since 2011. Erdogan has repeatedly justified his embrace of Syrian refugees on the grounds of religious brotherhood, highlighting the shared Sunni Muslim faith of Turks and most refugees. Such rhetoric has sharpened Turkey's secular-conservative rift: secular Turks perceive government emphasis on religious identity to be contrary to the republic's secular foundations.

"The arrival of Syrian refugees has ushered in religious polarisation."

In southeast Turkey, the arrival of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees has ushered in religious polarisation. Many conservative Sunni refugees now live alongside Turkish Alevis and Alawites, who share theological roots in Shia Islam. Although there are only some 500,000 Alawites in Turkey, Alevis constitute 20 per cent of Turkey's population. Members of both sects adhere to the Shia tenet that Imam Ali was the Prophet Muhammad's rightful successor and believe that Ali is divine, the latter separating them from other Shia. Such beliefs are rejected by Sunnis, who recognise a succession line starting with Abu Bakr and both Sunni and Shia believe Ali to be human. Conservative Sunnis argue that Alevis and Alawites are not true Muslims due to their beliefs and practices, including alcohol consumption, not fasting during Ramadan, and in the Alevi case, alternative places of worship.

Sectarian strife in Syria – including clerics calling for the extermination of Alawites, and filmed murders – has heightened fear and suspicion among Alevis and Alawites in border towns about their new Syrian neighbours. Syrian extremists among refugee populations in Turkey's Hatay province have threatened to kill Alawite and Alevi residents, with some refugees even accusing them of conspiring with Assad to massacre Sunnis. Low trust and high uncertainty have led Alevis and Alawites to stage rallies to end further refugee entry. Syrian refugees maintain that they face discrimination for actions committed by Syrian extremists.

Political cleavages are reinforcing religious divides. Following protests in Antakya, capital of Hatay province, the Turkish government created Defne, a new local municipality for all Alevi neighborhoods, whilst all Sunni-majority towns remained in Antakya district. Residents referred to the division as Hatay's own "Berlin Wall". Across Turkey, Alevis are growing frustrated with Turkey's broadly moderate-Islamist government, led by the AK Party (AKP). When the Syrian civil war began, the then AKP deputy chairman questioned whether the leader of Turkey's main opposition party (the CHP), himself an Alevi, supported Assad out of "sectarian affinity". More broadly, Alevis are affronted by President Erdogan's antagonism toward their faith, pointing to his comments in 2013 as prime minister that Alevism "is not a religion" and at his refusal to grant state recognition and funding for Alevi houses of worship as is done for churches, mosques, and synagogues. They accuse Erdogan of insensitivity, citing his decision to name Istanbul's next bridge after an Ottoman sultan whose conquests included an Alevi massacre. The June 2015 parliamentary elections increase the risk of conflict between Syrian refugees, who mostly support AKP, and Alevis and Alawites, who are mostly pro-CHP.

A Kurdish Peace?

A second effect of the Syrian civil war concerns negotiations between Ankara and the outlawed rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK led a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government that resulted in 30,000 deaths, mostly Kurdish. The group's leadership council is based in Iraq's Qandil Mountains, but its official leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been imprisoned in Turkey's Imrali Island since 1999. In 2012, then-Prime Minister Erdogan entered into secret negotiations with Ocalan, who still commands PKK loyalty. Erdogan in part appears motivated by a desire to win Kurdish parliamentarian support for his proposed amendment to Turkey's constitution, one that would strengthen an Erdogan presidency.

"After ISIS' attack on Kobane talks with the Kurds took a nosedive."

Talks with the Kurds took a nosedive in September 2014. That month, ISIS militants began a four-month long assault on Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. Despite US and Kurdish pleas, Ankara refused to help the YPG, PKK's affiliate, against ISIS. Erdogan began to publicly compare the PKK to ISIS, calculating that a militarily-crippled Kurdish movement was in Turkey's interest. Turkish Kurds were outraged, and more than 30 were killed in violent protests nationwide. PKK leaders threatenedto launch a new insurgency in Turkey if Kobane fell. Fortunately, in January 2015, American airstrikes and Kurdish fighters succeeded in securing Kobane. The victory emboldened the region's Kurds and the PKK in particular, which received Western accolades for its frontline success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Retaking Kobane has temporarily blessed the PKK's negotiating power, and new talks are already underway. Ankara, the PKK, and the HDP (Turkey's pro-Kurdish party) are developing consensus on Ocalan's 10-point plan for greater Kurdish autonomy. On Nevruz, the Persian New Year celebrated by Kurds, Ocalan repeated his 28 February call for the PKK's council to declare an end to its insurgency. Upcoming Turkish elections, PKK announcements, and Kurdish military success in Syria will determine Ankara's seriousness with regards to peace. Unless mutual expectations are met in the coming months, renewed PKK violence is likely.

The Road Ahead

Four years into the Syrian civil war, widening religious rifts and the potential for a Kurdish peace join other effects still unfolding across the region. Inter-ethnic prejudice between Turks and Arabs is rising over fears of the "Arabisation of Istanbul", where some 330,000 Syrian refugees have carved out new enclaves. Islamist radicalisation in Turkey is also on the rise, with 1,000 Turksreportedly fighting in ISIS ranks. Turkish authorities have yet to arrest ISIS recruitment officers roaming Turkish border towns. The Syrian war will continue to exacerbate Turkey's economic and political instability, adding to concerns over a depreciating currency and dirtier politics ahead of this year's elections.

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