Taking Refuge: The Syrian Revolution in Turkey

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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

By Jenna Krajeski

REYHANLI, Turkey—On a Friday in early April, for the first time since opening almost one year earlier, Turkey’s Reyhanli refugee camp is quiet. Its tight security—barbed wire, guards, and a large swath of farmland isolating it from the next town—has been loosened ever so slightly by the constant movement of Syrian refugees north from Reyhanli along the Syria-Turkey border to a new camp, 90 miles away, in Kilis. Guards lounge at Reyhanli’s half-open gates, letting journalists and refugees pass with a nonchalance compounded by exhaustion. Collapsed canvas tents lie in mounds beside their swept-clean concrete beds. Near the gendarme station, children swarm around a custard cake, a present from Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency, the agency’s logo decorating the top in blue frosting. But in the background of the isolated, half-empty camp, the acrid black plumes coming off nearby mounds of burning garbage are like smoke signals.

Most of the hundreds of remaining refugees had just arrived the night before from northern Syria, where escalating battles between rebels and the Syrian Army had pushed Syrian civilians into Turkey. They wear expressions of the newly displaced, numbed by shock or animated by anger. One woman is furious about the lack of international intervention. “You are giving Bashar more time to kill his people,” she yells, invoking the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose attempts to suppress the rebellion in his own country have sent thousands of opposition fighters across the border.

A man, worried for a friend who had left his three children alone in Taftanaz, which the Syrian Army had recently torn through, begs, “We need to find them.” Just outside a tent surrounded by fragrant crisscrossed lines of hanging laundry, a woman offers meek, staccato answers to the difficult questions she has not yet grown used to hearing. “Yes,” her parents are dead. “Yes,” it was the Army that killed them. “Yes,” she escaped on foot. She is dazed, wearing a pristine black hijab. As she talks, a crowd of refugees gathers silently around her. “Yes,” here, in the camp just across the border from where her home was destroyed, she feels secure, and “yes,” she is grateful to Turkey for taking her.

For Turkey, it has been a year of complicated political maneuvers, humanitarian struggles, bureaucratic hassles, and the impromptu redefining of both its policy toward refugees and its foreign policy. Turkey’s role as a burgeoning regional power, as a potential member of the EU, and as a model for the transforming governments of the Arab Spring, is being viewed through the lens of its reception of those refugees. As Syrians continue to cross the border—1,000 one night, 500 another—and a fragile ceasefire shows signs of collapsing completely, Turkey is being tested not only on its humanitarian principles but also on its political savvy.

Turkey’s treatment of its Syrian refugees and its tacit support of the Syrian rebels are early trials of Turkey’s growing clout in the region. The country’s response to a neighbor in crisis displays its growing solidarity with the Arab world—fueled by politics and religion—and its use of that solidarity to gain authority in international politics. Turkey’s tenuous geographical position could also be its good fortune, so long as it stays cool militarily, keeps its border open, continues to pressure the international community to take action in Syria, and remains patient.

The country is now host to 25,000 displaced Syrians, and the number continues to rise. Among them are members of the main opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the armed rebels, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Still, there are potential kinks in Turkey’s humanitarian pledge. So far the Turkish government has preferred to act alone, which alienates human rights organizations and limits aid. It resists offering full legal rights to Syrians. The refugees could wind up staying for the long term, needing jobs, education, and real homes. Along with the majority Sunni Arabs could come significant minority populations, like Christians and, most troubling for Turkey, Kurds. Turkey has long struggled with its Kurdish population, which makes up some 20 percent of the country. Citing ties to Kurdish terrorism, Turkey has deported Iranian and Iraqi Kurds seeking refuge in the past. The influx of Syrians could be Turkey’s atonement for those past deportations, as well as its chance to play a significant, not merely symbolic, role in the Arab Spring. Perhaps most important is Turkey’s support of the exiled Syrian opposition—a now mostly passive helping hand that could be a first step toward Turkish military intervention.


In recent years, a growing economy and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led loudly by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have pushed Turkey into an ever-widening and more intense spotlight. Turkey has positioned itself as a model for the changing democracies of the Arab Spring and as a defender of Palestinians. A more careful balance has replaced an almost single-minded focus on EU membership. Today, there is a keen awareness that on its own eastern flank are powerful, if often turbulent, governments in a region where Turkey could assume a key leadership position. Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, spearheaded by the AKP, was an attempt to improve relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A long feud between Ankara and Damascus subsided when the Syrian government finally expelled Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the United States, and the EU classify as a terrorist organization. But when the Syrian uprising began, Turkey found itself in the unenviable position of having a neighbor with a great many problems—serious ones that would inevitably cross borders.

“The Turkish government made misjudgments early on, first thinking that Assad could be persuaded to reform and then taking serious offense that he wouldn’t,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “They’re paying the price right now.” Once Turkey began siding with the protesters, it became Assad’s harshest critic, favoring the tumult of a changing democracy over a tyrant’s status quo and banking on Assad’s swift removal and a strong relationship with Syria’s new government. While the international community continued to try to negotiate with Syria, Turkey realized it had already burned that bridge. “This situation forces their hand,” says Sayigh. “The options for Turkey are not comfortable ones.”

An open border remains a central component of its pledge to pair political hardball with humanitarian aid. Turkey has spent $150 million on aid to the refugees, building nine camps and still scrambling to accommodate more new arrivals without significant help from international aid organizations or the UN. The refugees who remained in the Reyhanli camp in April, battle-scarred and grasping at a new life, are evidence that while governments deliberate over the country’s future, the Syrian people are left waiting for the long crisis to be over, even as it gives no signs of ending.


On April 1, while delegates from across the Arab world, including the Syrian National Council, and much of the West mulled the political future of the Assad regime at a “Friends of Syria” conference in Istanbul, demonstrations formed outside the gates of the conference center. First the pro-Assad protesters came out, carrying photos of Bashar and chanting inside a tight circle of Turkish riot police. Later, a larger group of anti-regime protesters clustered together wearing camouflage vests embroidered with the logo of the FSA. The two groups shouted at one another across a sidewalk border, but, while the pro-Assad demonstrators were eventually dispersed with tear gas, the FSA protesters were held by a loose line of Turkish police. They remained for hours.

Inside the conference hall, the Syrian National Council was given the podium. Assad was denounced and world leaders pledged monetary assistance to the burgeoning FSA. Turkish authorities, whether the government or riot police, appeared to be throwing their support behind the expatriated Syrian revolution, giving them time to organize and grow stronger in Turkey while Syrian forces continued to pummel their homeland.

Mohammad Bassam Imadi used to be Syria’s ambassador to Sweden, but since November he has been living in an Istanbul hotel and working as a member of the Syrian National Council’s foreign relations committee. Politicians with the SNC are allowed to stay for a year in Turkey, but it’s a “passive assistance,” Imadi says. In return, he hesitates to criticize Turkey’s handling of refugees. “We are sitting in Turkey. It’s not polite to criticize people who are hosting us. The burden is very big. It’s not easy to harbor so many refugees.” Imadi, like most of his colleagues, wants Turkey to go a step further in its assistance to the opposition. “The best alternative to military intervention would be a buffer zone,” he says. “The defections will help to disintegrate the Army and the regime will fall.”

Whereas Imadi and the SNC are largely based in Istanbul, the FSA is based in Antakya, the largest city in the border region of Hatay. The original camps for Syrian refugees were built along this frontier. Magid, a 26-year-old member of the FSA, is himself a defector from the Syrian Army. Like many FSA members, Magid stays in Turkey only when recovering from wounds sustained while fighting in Syria. Crossing the border, he says, is simple. “We pay smugglers. We walk up the mountains and through rivers, trying to avoid mines. I go every two weeks. In our group, only the wounded go back to Turkey. The border guards don’t know we are FSA. It’s a humanitarian issue, letting us cross the border.”

The Antakya office of the Higher Commission for Syrian Relief, an Istanbul-based organization that works to mobilize and deliver aid to Syrian opposition, is both a dorm and a clinic for FSA soldiers. A sweet stew warms the air of the small kitchen and men gather around a television, smoking cigarettes and talking about home. On basement cots, soldiers are treated then redeployed to Syria. They are given first aid training, food, and beds below red, black, and green curtains—the colors of the Syrian flag. Among them are defectors like Magid from the Syrian Army and veteran FSA fighters, as well as young male refugees who seem to have bought medical care with a vow to join ranks. One patient counts the days until he can fight again. “Since the first day they called for freedom, we carried weapons,” he says. 

The FSA flatters its host country, as though it wants, not fears, a visit from Turkish authorities. Samir, a young man from Latakia with a thick beard, shows off Turkish flags emblazoned with photos of Ataturk, saying, “It’s the least we can do.” The wounded men appreciate Turkish relief but, as soldiers, they are also quick to disavow it. “I would rather defend Syria than be safe in Turkey,” says one man, a defector recovering from bullet wounds. Another says, “I think Turkey is doing its best. But if we had to go to the camps, we would put our wives and children there and we would return to Syria permanently.”

Samir is used to journalists, and the clinic feels a little like a made-for-media set. Stacks of medicine are nearing their expiration, and during an interview Samir instructs a patient in Arabic to credit the FSA with his escape from Syria. But the wounds are real, and so is the strong loyalty to the Syrian opposition, the hatred of Assad, and the gratitude to Turkey, although that comes with some caveats. The patients in the FSA clinic criticize the medical care in the camps where, according to Samir, “patients are barely looked at, just prescribed medication immediately.” Local hospitals are good, they say, but the doctors are overworked. “Turks go into the hospital when they are hurt, but Syrians arrive and this guy lost his leg, this guy has lost his hand,” Samir says. “Turkish doctors are tired of the Syrian cases.”

A short visit to a local hospital confirms the rushed, though well-meaning, care—an effective recruiting method of the FSA. Ahmed Mustafa, a day laborer from Taftanaz, lies on a cot by the window struggling to talk through a cheek swollen with embedded shrapnel. The battle in his hometown was the first time Mustafa had behaved like a soldier, he says, but now he’s committed to fighting, returning to Syria rather than seeking the safety of the Turkish refugee camps. “I will work hard to topple the regime. All those people are being killed. Wouldn’t you go back?”

This cross-border flow is not without serious challenges. The Turkish government has so far failed to unite the Syrian opposition in Turkey, and there are concerns about the effectiveness of that opposition in exile. The refugees have brought with them scrutiny from both the international community and the Syrians living in Turkey. There is the worry that at some near point, the passive assistance of harboring soldiers—what FSA forces referred to as the Turkish authorities “closing one eye”—will become tantamount to Turkish military intervention in Syria.

“This is a unique case in Turkish history,” says Gokhan Bacik, a professor of international relations at Gaziantep’s Zirve University. “For the first time, Turkey is officially struggling for regime change in another country. The Arab Spring is a great opportunity for Turkey to realize its new power, but it is finding its limits. There is a fine tuning between idealism and reality.” Bacik worries that because of its humanitarian goals, Turkey is in over its head. “Eighty countries attended ‘Friends of Syria,’” he says. “But Turkey is the only one still here. In practice it is only Turkey.”


Almost as soon as the first Syrians gathered at the border, the Turkish government was ready with tent cities, preparing, as President Abdullah Gül was quoted as saying, “for the worst,” meaning a tsunami of refugees. Basic necessities—food, shelter, and security—were the priorities. But mobility for the refugees, transparency, and cooperation with nongovernmental entities were in short supply.

“In the early days, we called the camps humanitarian detention,” says Oktay Durukan, director of the refugee program at the Istanbul office of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a human rights group. The Assembly and other organizations focused on refugees, including the UNHCR, were essentially frozen out by the Turkish government, which preferred to collaborate exclusively with the Turkish Red Crescent, a semi-governmental aid organization. Other aid workers and journalists were banned from entering the camps. Refugees, who would have provided the most crucial testimony on the conditions inside, were not allowed to leave.

Rumors began circulating. There weren’t enough tents, and, come winter, the Syrians could expect the same freezing conditions as victims of last October’s catastrophic earthquake in the southeast city of Van. With its heavily Kurdish population, Van had been cruelly neglected by the Turkish government. Ethnic discrimination—between Muslims and Christians, Alawites and Sunnis—intensified the stress within the camps. Turkish authorities were deporting high-ranking opposition members. Gender dynamics boiled over, leading to harassment and the segregation of young men from families—“segregation” really being an excuse to separate potential troublemakers into a more prison-like camp. Without reliable information passing the camp gates, it was impossible to distinguish truth from worry.

“For the first four months in Reyhanli I couldn’t leave,” recalls Mahmoud Musa, a former headmaster who lived in Reyhanli for nine months before being moved to the new camp in Kilis in April. Musa worried about his children’s stalled education in the camp. He complained about the lack of privacy, the cold tents during winter, the overcrowding. “In Reyhanli, you had to walk 300 feet to the toilet. You had to walk 300 feet to the bath in the cold.” Moreover, they were all but out of touch with the world. Moreover, the refugees felt oppressed by their disconnection from the outside world, particularly as violence escalated and politics roiled at home.

But in Reyhanli, Musa made friends with the Syrian smugglers he had once blamed for making the revolution violent by seeking “revenge” against security forces. “As a teacher, I would tell my students not to become smugglers. Now I am a smuggler. I smuggle journalists into Syria.” Musa is quick to forgive Turkey for mishaps in its handling of the crisis. “The Turkish people, I believe, want to help us,” he says now. A smart and thoughtful man, and a fluent English speaker, Musa quickly established himself as a liaison between refugees and the Turkish authorities. In April, the Ministry of Education contacted him about establishing a school for Syrian children in Antakya.

As the violence in Syria moved north and the number of refugees increased, Turkey began work on three new camps. In April, one month ahead of schedule, they opened a camp in Kilis, a border town north of Hatay. In Kilis, tents were replaced by pre-fabricated container homes, suitable for six. Schools, mosques, and a hospital awaited the refugees. In exchange for their temporary Turkish ID cards, and after undergoing biometric fingerprinting and an X-ray of belongings, the refugees would receive a credit card that they could use to buy goods in an in-camp store. A tall concrete and barbed wire fence replaced the chain-link fence of Reyhanli. There is constant surveillance.

“Kilis is like paradise, if you don’t think about leaving,” Musa says. In spite of his communication with the Turkish government, in order to get to Antakya, Musa had to sneak out of the camp with the help of a foreign journalist. “If I had come by public bus, the gendarmes would have checked.”

Eventually, authorities allowed media and inspectors into the camps, but only a privileged few. To the refugees, such visits are merely an opportunity for Turkey to flatter itself. Wasim Sabagh was living in Bohsin camp for two months by the time the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, visited. “The Turkish authorities wouldn’t let her walk around,” he says. “They picked people to greet her who would blindly praise Turkey.” But these shows were also for high-ranking Turkish officials, according to Sabagh, who blames corrupt camp workers and middle management. He recalls preparations for a visit from Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “They cleaned the whole camp,” he says. “And then Erdogan’s mother got sick, and he didn’t even come.”

Ironically, what protects Syrians in Turkey from losing their mobility altogether is their host country’s seemingly indeterminate policy. Just as Turkey passively encourages the FSA, it passively affords the ability to crisscross the border to the tens of thousands according to the ebb and flow of violence in Syria. Because in Turkey, Syrians are not technically refugees.


In 2010, before the Syrian crisis began, there were 17,000 non-European asylum-seekers in Turkey. Most were from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, with Somalis making up a significant minority. These refugees would register with the UNHCR, then be sent to one of 30 satellite cities around Turkey with an asylum-seeker ID card and residency permit, but little else. “You are expected to survive on your own,” Durukan says. “There is no housing, no help. In some ways the Syrians in the camps are better off.”

Syrians who entered Turkey because of the 2011 uprising are frequently referred to as “refugees,” but the more than 25,000 Syrians residing in Hatay and later in Kilis and the surrounding area have been given “temporary protection status.” They do not need a visa to enter Turkey and will not be deported back to Syria. While they are in Turkey, they can seek amenities and security in the camps. There are other benefits. The Syrians are not subject to the stresses of Turkish satellite towns, and they avoid consulting the UNHCR when they want to return to Syria—a process that depends on judgment of the UNHCR rather than the refugee. “UNHCR standards are not the same as the refugees’,” says Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. “When you enter walls and have formalized refugee status, it becomes very hard to leave. The refugees are infantilized.”

But temporary protection is a term that irks many displaced Syrians. To them, it is a way for Turkey to withhold legal rights and also serves as a display of their host country’s xenophobia. “The Syrian regime looks at us as terrorists. The Turkish regime looks at us as numbers,” Sabagh says. “We are human beings. We must be considered refugees.” Their own status denies Syrians the right to settle and work in Turkey and the chance to emigrate from there to Europe. It makes it seem that Turkey’s motivation is political rather than humanitarian. “They are keeping us like a card to play,” Sabagh says. Turkey’s refugee camps are platforms where the regional power can showcase its humanitarianism while hosting Assad’s opposition—a chance to start on good terms with a post-Assad government. But by denying status to the refugees, Sabagh believes, the Turkish state shows it cares little for the individual.

Such denial may be interpreted as a personal slight—a continuation of Arab discrimination in Turkey—but there are arguments for its practicality. “The most important thing is protection,” says Metin Corabatir, the spokesperson for the Turkey branch of the UNHCR. “Temporary protection status is designed for mass influx of people.” Registering each individual as a refugee is time-consuming, costly, and, in the case of Syrians living so close to their homes, confining.

While some refugees enter the limbo of camps or exploit the open border to continue fighting, some do sneak deeper into Turkey in search of a more permanent life. The children attending the all-Syrian Al-Bashayer school in Hatay find it easy to blend in. There is a distinctive cultural overlap between Hatay and Syria. Until the 1930s, the region was part of Syria. Arabic, as well as Turkish, is widely spoken. Many refugees have chosen to sidestep the camps, some living legitimately with relatives, but most illegally. Reliable numbers are difficult to come by, but if the school’s attendance is any indication—rising from 15 to 190 students in nine months—the population is growing rapidly. The school also looks ahead to the longer-term. The children’s education in their new country, which includes Turkish language classes and a revised history that glorifies the Ottoman Empire, is the first of the refugee community’s potential new roots.

At school, students rehearse songs from a play about Syria they are set to perform in one month. “They sing songs for the revolution,” says Mustafa Shakir, the principal and founder of Al-Bashayer. “There is a song for each city in Syria.” But the revised curriculum withholds the worst details of the bloodshed just miles away. “We don’t tell them how many people have died,” Shakir says. “They come with that. We want them to be able to escape the suffering.”

The school depends on the light restrictions placed on Syrians leaving the camps. But this is not a policy that Suphi Atan, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thinks will last if the number of refugees continues to rise dramatically. Atan oversees the transfer of refugees from Hatay to the new camps—“dream cities,” he calls them— and he anticipates more scrutiny on the avenues and in the apartment buildings where undocumented Syrians roam freely. “We don’t want to have people on the streets. In Kilis, we are forcing them to live a more comfortable life,” he says.

Moreover, Antakya is 40 percent Alawite, so most support Syria’s Alawi dictator, Bashar al-Assad. They are uneasy about hosting these new refugees—many of whom had until just recently engaged in pitched street battles against Assad’s security forces. There is widespread speculation here that this tension is what led Turkey to move the camps north. Like the vast majority of the refugees, Turkey’s government is Sunni Muslim. If the end goal, or part of it, is to secure goodwill with a post-Assad government, Turkey needs to make sure it keeps its Syrian population happy. But containing the refugees in new camps, particularly those in the opposition or who, like the students at Al-Bashayer, seek out lives in town, seems doomed to have the opposite effect.


On April 9, fighting erupted in Syria just across the border from Kilis, and shells killed a refugee inside the container city. “The bullets were able to pierce the container houses,” Musa, the headmaster, says. “At the funeral, one guy screamed, ‘We are in Turkey and they killed us inside Turkey.’” Kilis’s vulnerability concerns aid agencies, says Corabatir, from the UNHCR. “A principle of international refugee practice is that camps should be far from the borders when there are conflicts. We continue to provide our guidelines, but the Turkish authorities have their own expertise.”

“We know that refugee camps in the south are considered the base of the FSA,” adds Durukan, from the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. “This is part of Turkey’s ambiguous policy.” Imadi, from the SNC, hopes that the shelling of Kilis would “cause Turkey to take a stronger stance. But we can only speak and make meetings. We cannot demand anything.”

Turkey, which has the second-largest military in NATO, began moving its own troops to the border to protect the camps. “I think Turkey came very close to mounting a military intervention when there were shots fired that targeted refugees,” says Kemal Karisci, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. Turkey has been able to avoid military intervention, perhaps because of the unwitting calculations of the international community to encourage a ceasefire at a critical moment and give Turkey a chance to take stock. “The foreign minister has promised that Turkey will not do anything unilaterally,” Karisci says. “But whether Turkey will be able to stand behind this position, only time will tell.”

When Assad falls, as he must, Turkey will have a chance to play a central role in the economic and political restructuring of its neighbor. Turkey’s policy now depends on two major events—that Assad will leave soon and that the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians on Turkish soil will be able to go home. It’s at this point in the near future, according to Durukan, when Turkey will face a real refugee crisis. “When things stabilize in Syria, the question of Turkey as a host country becomes extra relevant. That’s when the new regime could persecute members of the Alawite or Christian or Kurdish minorities, and they would seek asylum in Turkey,” Durukan says. What’s happening now—the 25,000 refugees, the faltering but growing opposition, the political uncertainty—this, Durukan continues, is only “a period of transition.”

For now, despite the threat of violence and Turkey’s fluctuating policy, the container homes, school, mosques, and hospitals of Kilis—along with the 12,000 refugees—aren’t going anywhere. A resident in the Kilis camp, Ammar, describes the funeral after the early-morning shelling. “I could hear the gunfire. When I got into the square, people were holding the martyr. They were so angry. They took down the Turkish flag and started stepping on it. A Turkish official approached us. He was also angry. He asked us, ‘Why are you stepping on the flag? That flag is protecting you.’”



Jenna Krajeski is an Istanbul-based writer, whose last contribution to World Policy Journal, “Beyond Tahrir Square,” appeared last summer.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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