A Libyan research centre has said that the crisis in Syria is one of the most pressing issues in Turkish politics at this time, Quds Press has reported. “Syria has turned from being an external affair in a neighbouring country requiring input from Turkish politicians, into an important part of Turkish politics,” said Jusoor Study Centre in a new report. Turkey, it added, has even become part of the Syrian scene as well.
Syrian refugees have been flowing into Turkey since the start of the current crisis in mid-2011. As at the beginning of this month, the number of refugees in Turkey registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stood at more than 3.5 million, making Turkey the world’s largest refugee host nation, with not only the most Syrian refugees but also the most Syrians outside Syria anywhere in the world.
According to the Jusoor report, these statistics do not include those Syrians who are living in Turkey with non-refugee residence status, and those who are not registered with UNHCR. This means that the number of Syrians in Turkey could actually be around five million.
“The Turkish government has not only opened its doors to the refugees,” noted Jusoor, “but has also provided generous support to them. Unlike other host countries, Turkey does not push Syrian refugees into camps; it provides humanitarian aid itself and does not rely on support offered by international organisations.”
Unsurprisingly, the Syrian crisis has been addressed many times by Turkish politicians, especially during election campaigns. A number of opposition parties, especially the Republican People’s Party, have been hostile towards the refugees, calling for an end to support for Syrian opposition groups and for the normalisation of relations with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. The head of Yurt Partisi, Doğu Perinçek, has also called for improved relations with the Syrian regime, and expressed his readiness to host Al-Assad in Ankara if he wins the election.
While such matters related to Syria have been covered in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s current election speeches, they have been noticeably absent in those of the other presidential candidates.
Muharrem İnce, the Republican People’s Party candidate in the presidential race, has previously and repeatedly called for Syrian refugees to be sent back to their country and for Turkey to close the border to any more. His position on the issue has been repeated during the current election campaign.
Similar views have been expressed by İyi Party candidate Meral Akşener. She has promised to repatriate refugees within a year if she becomes president of Turkey.
Temel Karamollaoğlu of Saadet Partisi, meanwhile, has avoided talking about the refugee situation altogether. His only reference to Turkey’s role in the Syrian issue has been to criticise what he says is its part in “serving the imperialist project” in Syria and other countries.
The former head of the People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtaş, might be a presidential candidate but he is in prison. As such, he has not been able to address the Syrian issue in any speeches or interviews.
The Jusoor report pointed out that Syria has become a major part of Turkey’s political concerns, something that is unlikely to change, regardless of who wins the presidential election, given the large number of the refugees in the country. Turkey’s responsibility in the areas of Syria where it has troops — and in Idlib Governorate, where it acts as an observer — must also be considered. This is in addition to the fact that Turkey’s border areas have self-management zones that pose a direct security threat. Ankara has also become a key partner in the Syrian peace process in Astana, and is the last international supporter of the Syrian opposition.
The presidential election will be held on Sunday 24 June; the electorate will also be asked to vote for parliamentary candidates. Although scheduled for November 2019, President Erdoğan announced in April that the polls would be held earlier due to the serious nature of the issues facing the country. Critics say that he wanted to capitalise on the Turkish Army’s successes in Syria. Voting by Turkish citizens living overseas started last week.
The election may be the most important in Turkey’s modern history, as the new president will rule according to the powers that were approved in the referendum which took place in April last year. The post-election government will be very different to previous regimes in place since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
According to the list approved by the Supreme Court on 13 May, six candidates are standing for president: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current President and head of the Justice and Development Party; Muharrem İnce, head of Republican People’s Party; Meral Akşener, leader of İyi Party; Selahattin Demirtaş, former head of the Peoples’ Democratic Party; Temel Karamollaoğlu, head of Saadet Partisi; and Doğu Perinçek, head of Yurt Partisi.