Syria was once the jewel in the crown of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy. However, the Arab Spring and Syrian revolution not only devastated that policy but also led to a big economic burden stemming from an ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees fleeing from the brutal violence and crossing into Turkey. The Syrian crisis also crystallised Turkey’s Achilles’ heel, Kurdish separatism, and the Sunni-Alawite split as the spillover effect of the Syrian conflict became more and more evident with the appearance of new, and unwelcome, neighbours along the 900 km border: the Jihadist groups Al-Nusra Front, ISIS and the Democratic Union Party (“Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat” or PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK).
This article will mainly analyse two issues which have endangered Turkey’s border security as well as its relations with neighbouring countries and the West: the Syrian refugee problem and the Kobane crisis. Both are of vital importance as they are related directly to Turkey’s very sensitive domestic political issues.
The Syrian refugee problem
On 29 April 2011, when Syrian civilians started to seek refuge in Turkey, they were only 252 in number and were settled in temporary camps. “As their numbers grew towards the end of 2011, the government extended ‘temporary protection’ to Syrian refugees, the only country to do so in the region. This was a reflection of Turkey’s open door policy, its policy of non-refoulement and its commitment to ensure basic humanitarian services to refugees.”
From the Turkish officials’ perspective, that open door policy showed that “even facing massive inflows, it is possible to uphold a humanitarian approach and enact policies that prioritise the needs of refugees, rather than treat them as a threat to state security.”
However, with the lingering diplomatic process, Turkey’s attempts to create a global coalition that would stage strong opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus remained fruitless and the number of Syrian refugees increased in an unprecedented way due to the escalating war. Turkey has come face to face with both security and economic challenges. For example, Turkish funds for humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees exceeded $2 billion by the end of 2013.
Since August 2012, the Turkish authorities have started to put restrictions on official entries of Syrians without valid passports in order to provide more space for the refugees in the existing camps. This has led to the creation of makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. To accommodate this situation, the Turkish government has also put in place a “zero-point delivery system” whereby humanitarian help is delivered to the border with Syria, to be picked up by Syrian organisations and distributed to people in need on the other side.
Despite such humanitarian efforts by Turkey, its credibility on international platforms has fallen on the basis that the jihadist groups were provided by Ankara with “light weapons [and] bullets and were treated at Turkish hospitals in Hatay”.
Many alleged that due to the open door policy, not only Syrian civilians but also rebels – including jihadists – could move freely in and out of Turkey while officials looked the other way, because the Jihadists fought against the Asad regime efficiently. As such, Turkish officials’ claim that Ankara continues to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict rang hollow.
As the war in Syria escalated, and the lack of international consensus to act against Assad became more and more evident, the two new actors, the PYD and ISIS, arrived to set Turkish alarm bells ringing.
Assad promised to give autonomy in an area covering six districts in the region, including Haseki, Ras Al-Ain, Afrin, Darbasiyya, Ainal-Araband and Kamishli.
From Ankara’s perspective, at a time when Turkey has been trying to make peace with its own Kurdish population, the PYD’s aspirations to gain autonomy aiming at a probable independent Kurdish state which would have access to the Mediterranean was unacceptable. In a region under PYD control, the PKK would have the ability to establish a strong foothold and lead to a serious border security issue for Turkey. This perception of Turkey has led to Kurdish resentment on the Turkish side of the border, especially against the policy-makers of the ruling AKP. This confrontation between the Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party in Turkey and the AKP government became most evident when the Kobane crisis arose.
The Kobane crisis
With the brutal fighting initiated by ISIS against the Kurds in Kobane in October 2014, another big wave of Syrian refugees flooded to the Turkish border, and the Kurds in Turkey wanted to join the PYD forces in their fight against ISIS. However, due to concerns in Ankara, Turkey did not want to act to prevent the events in Kobane. This led to unprecedented protests in dozens of Turkish cities. Ankara’s concerns were manifold. First of all, from the government’s perspective, both the PYD and ISIS are terrorist organisations and the pro-Islamist Kurds opposing the PKK should have been taken into consideration on the eve of the general elections. Second, despite ongoing negotiations with Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan and the peace process, the Turkish government did not want to support the PKK openly as many in Turkey were still very sensitive and approaching the ongoing negotiations from a nationalistic perspective. Third, the Kobane issue also had the potential to trigger a civil-military confrontation as the Turkish army was quite sensitive and uneasy about cooperating with the PYD, a branch of the PKK, against another terrorist organisation, ISIS.
Last, but not least, many in Turkey believed firmly that the situation in Kobane was a tool in the hands of Washington to intervene in Turkey’s PKK/Kurdish problem and was acting as a champion of Syria’s Kurds.
Despite so many concerns about the crisis, Ankara consented unexpectedly to the Peshmerga forces’ passage to Kobane to fight alongside their ethnic brothers. The Turkish government thus put an end to its ambivalent policies towards the crisis by allying with its sole brotherly neighbour, Iraqi Kurdistan. The government thus aimed to “overshadow the PKK’s military success in Kobane vis-à-vis the Islamic State organisation, to address international criticism and to strengthen the position of Barzani’s KDP among the Syrian Kurds.”
When looked at closely, it can be said that among the other regional countries, Turkey, as a front-line state, has been the one most effected in a negative way by the Syrian crisis on many levels: political, economic and security. Most important of all, the Syrian revolt not only provoked its domestic political issue but also led to a deterioration in its relations with the West by enhancing Turkey’s feelings of mistrust toward the United States as well as the European Union.
Despite many miscalculations and wrong strategies by the government in Ankara, it should be borne in mind that the Turkish people passed a very severe test by approving the AKP government’s “open door policy” by which they believed that the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians – including women and children – would be saved. During the Kobane crisis, two hundred thousand Kurds were allowed to enter Turkey overnight. Today, the number of Syrian refugees exceeds two million. In a nutshell, Turkey, when compared with other countries where Syrian refugees are sheltered, such as Egypt and Jordan, for example, is the only country which has provided the most humane conditions for the refugees; this demonstrates that Turkey has prioritised humanitarian policies over its strategic interests, despite its growing unease over the consequences of the conflict across the border.
Professor Özden Zeynep Oktavteaches in the Faculty of Economics & Administrative Sciences, Yildiz Technical University, Turkey.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.