Turkey's ruling party, Syrian refugees and the return of Kemalism

Faced with electoral headwinds, the AKP is in the midst of giving up one of its ideals

A woman seen at her home with a Turkish flag hanged to show that she is Turkish in the Onder neighbourhood of Ankara. This is following tension in Onder and Battalgazi between Syrians and Turks last August. Getty Images
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Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is widely thought to have viewed Arabs as inferior to Turks. Whether this is true, and whether it’s the legacy of centuries of Ottoman rule over Arab lands, is hard to say. But it does help explain his decisions to drop the Arabic script, curb Islamic observances, ban the fez and embrace secular western ways.

Ataturk’s very conception of “the Turk", the prime pillar of Turkish nationalism, was largely about superiority and distrust of foreigners, which seems fitting since the root of the Turkish word for foreigner, yabanci, means “savage” or “wild”.

The Ottoman Empire was cosmopolitan; Ataturk’s Republic turned up its nose at outsiders.

Anti-Arab views were, as a result, baked into Turkish society, and many Turks came to see their compatriots as modern and their southern neighbours as “backwards”.

Founded in 2001, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP pivoted from Ataturk’s aggressive secularism to a more Ottomanesque vision – embracing Islamic identity and a measure of Middle Eastern integration. The party came to power in 2002 and seemed to double down on this approach after EU negotiators slowed Turkey's accession bid. When Syria's civil war began, Ankara took what many saw as the moral stance: like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before him, Bashar Al Assad had to go.

This in turn led to an acceptance of Syrian refugees, who by 2012 were crossing into Turkey by the tens of thousands. Seeking to position Turkey as the champion of oppressed Muslims everywhere, Mr Erdogan offered a warm welcome to “our brothers” from war-torn Syria as the number of new arrivals hit 2 million, then 3 million, and finally 4 million.

Turkey began offering citizenship to Syrians as Mr Erdogan topped a number of polls as the most popular Muslim leader in the region. Living in Istanbul at the time, I argued that Turkey had the chance to become an immigrant-friendly state, boosting regional ties as well as its economy. A lengthy 2016 New York Times’ Magazine article asserted that the refugees had begun to make Turks “rethink how they viewed their country, their history and even themselves".

Yet now, with an election looming next year, reality seems to have caught up with the AKP. Inflation is at a 24-year high, the lira is near record lows and tens of millions of Turks can barely buy food or pay their bills. A poll last week showing 28 per cent support for Turkey’s executive presidential system – Mr Erdogan’s brainchild, approved in 2017 – pointed towards the level of support the country’s long-time leader might expect at the polls.

If Turks are not blaming the President for their economic troubles, they’re blaming Syrians. Thus, the recent uptick in incidents of violence against refugees and street scenes such as one that went viral last month, in which a crowd of Istanbul residents harass 17-year-old Syrian Ahmet Kanjo, urging him to return home. “I had to leave school because of racism,” he pleads. “You blame the Syrians for everything.”

The opposition has, as one might expect, leveraged these views. In 2019, despite a campaign that sought to counter populism with “radical love”, the main opposition CHP – the party of Ataturk – rode anti-refugee sentiment to major victories in several of Turkey’s largest cities, including Ankara, Istanbul, Antalya and Adana.

The xenophobic rhetoric has only increased since, with CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu repeatedly vowing to send all Syrians home should the party come to power next June. The latest from Turkey’s most virulent nativist politician, Umit Ozdag of the Victory Party, is that the government has granted citizenship to nearly 1.5 million Syrians – about five times the official figure.

The government, meanwhile, appears to have delayed another planned Syria offensive to instead focus on construction and security in the areas it controls just south of the border. As Ankara has opened the door to fleeing Crimean Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians, Mr Erdogan says Turkey expects to return at least a million more Syrian refugees, on top of the half million who have already gone back.

“They will want to go after we establish security there, and we will send them,” Turkey’s Family and Social Services Minister, Derya Yanik, said last week in Adana, vowing that after 2023 all the Syrian refugees will be gone. “But right now there is no place to send them.”

Some blame Ankara for that. A day after Turkish strikes killed several Syrian government troops near Kobane last week, a drone strike killed at least four teenage girls in north-eastern Syria’s Hasakah district, with Syrian Kurds blaming Turkey for the latter attack as well.

Still, Turkey has finished construction on more than 62,000 new homes in Idlib, with plans for some 200,000 across northern Syria. Yet, ensuring returnees’ safety will require a lasting peace and a green light from Damascus. “We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this month.

The comment sparked angry protests across Turkish-controlled territories in northern Syria, as the Assad regime's opponents expressed frustrations with Turkey’s apparent policy flip – even though it’s been expected for some time. Mr Erdogan seemed to confirm the shift last week, saying Turkey does not seek Mr Al Assad’s removal and that engagement needs to be taken further.

Several reports point towards a high-level bilateral in the coming days, possibly facilitated by Russia. The potential benefits of normalisation are clear. Ankara will presumably be able to work with Damascus, Tehran and Moscow to apply greater pressure on Syrian Kurdish militants along the border – though such efforts will be limited by the US military presence. Plus, returning 1-2 million Syrians will surely curry favour with nationalist and Kemalist voters and may help alleviate economic pressure in the lead-up to next year’s vote.

But there is a trade-off: if you aim to simultaneously improve relations with Israel and some Arab countries – Syria possibly being the latest among them – while sending countless families into potential danger, you can no longer stake a claim to being the region’s great humanitarian and Muslim champion.

For a decade, Turkey’s ruling AKP convincingly portrayed itself as in solidarity with Arab peoples, ready and willing to provide aid and refuge to oppressed Muslims. But economic and electoral desperation have now encouraged a nationalist revival – a reprioritisation of the Turk that could also be seen as a betrayal of Syrian rebels and refugees, not to mention Palestinians and others.

Of course, easing opposition to Mr Al Assad and attacking Syrian Kurdish militants, the local partner in the anti-ISIS coalition, is unlikely to improve Turkey’s troubled ties with the US and EU. And the cherry on top is that, politically, the whole shift may well turn out to be too little, too late for Mr Erdogan and the AKP.

Published: August 22, 2022, 2:00 PM