Taking Refuge: The Syrian Revolution in Turkey

[Tensions peaked today at the Suleiman Shah refugee camp in Turkey as the Turkish government reversed its plan to deport 130 Syrian refugees following violent protests. Read how Jenna Krajeski described the conditions for Syrian refugees, the uneven relationship between Syrians and their Turkish hosts, and what support for the Syrian opposition means for Turkey's regional reputation.]

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.”

[To read the rest of this article from the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue, click here]


Related posts