Ever since the stabbing of a Turk by two Syrian refugees in the Altindag neighbourhood of Ankara in early August, relations between the two communities have changed. Almost a decade of near-continuous migration to Turkey, rising unemployment and a tumbling economy broke through the barriers and erupted that night, resulting in Turkish ultranationalists going onto the streets to riot and destroy Syrian-owned businesses.
At one level, the fears of the nationalists are somewhat understandable, with the Turkish lira falling in value against the US dollar, an uncertain political future and with no end to the Syrian conflict in sight. There isn’t going to a peaceful return of refugees to Syria anytime soon.
Added to all of this is the fact that Syrians and other refugees are able to secure jobs due to fewer employer regulations and their willingness to work for half the wages that a Turk will ask for. There has thus been considerable and growing unease amongst Turks towards their Syrian neighbours.
A common stereotype believed by many Turks is that Syrians, and Arabs generally, are able to relax, smoke shisha and sip tea regardless of their economic position. The average Turk, meanwhile, is left gloomy and disheartened by financial hardship. The divide between the two has got wider.
That division is having an impact on Turkish politics, with disagreements between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) getting stronger. Despite a coalition government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cordial relationship with MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, the refugees are a contentious issue.
While Erdogan has maintained his open-door policy for refugees, he has also attempted to stave off political attacks against the policy by Bahceli and the leader of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The latter threatens to return refugees forcefully and restore relations with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
The Turkish president also knows that he has to keep tighter control over Turkey’s borders, as thousands of Afghan refugees have been entering the country from Iran. Erdogan has strengthened the border with a system of trenches and watchtowers. He has also told the European Union and the United States that his country can no longer bear the burden of over 4-5 million refugees. Thus, he has finally drawn a line on the refugee issue, understandably, and seems to have drifted further to the right, a result of his alliance with Bahceli that was predicted by many.
The rising tide of Turkish ultranationalism, though, has not just been seen in politics, but also in society generally. Many Turks are wary of more refugees entering the country, and many who were disinterested, neutral or even welcoming of refugees previously are now also worried about the situation.
Despite such hardships and the changes that come with the refugees, however, violence towards them – especially those who have escaped war and oppression – should never be an option. It is a matter of logic and honour; those who destroy Syrian businesses and attack or discriminate against the Syrians are targeting the wrong people. While attacking the victims of war, they deal honourably with those Syrians who support or are responsible for the terrible conditions which have driven refugees to flee to Turkey.
The family of Syrian President Assad, for example, was able to holiday in Turkey’s Bodrum last year. His daughter or niece – it was disputed which one – was spotted on a yacht and reported to have rented six luxury cars during her trip to Turkey.
Almost a year later, Syrian actress Jenny Esber, who is an ardent supporter of Assad, was reported to have thrown a party in Turkey on a boat on the Bosphorus. When the popular Turkey-based Syrian activist Ahmet Hamou took to Twitter to criticise the fact that Esber was allowed to do so and called on the Turkish security services to investigate the matter, he was condemned and threatened by Turkish ultranationalists on social media.
How can a mere Syrian refugee, they asked, raise questions about who can visit Turkey? In response to Hamou’s “arrogance”, they mocked his complaint by spouting old Turkish proverbs such as, “The guest does not like the guest, but the host does not like either of them.”
All of that prejudice built up over a decade, with roots going back a century to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, still casts a dark shadow over Arab-Turkish relations and angers Turkish nationalists. It has been unleashed against the Syrian refugees and other asylum seekers instead of those who caused them to flee in the first place.
The Turkish ultranationalists – along with leaders such as Bahceli and Kilicdaroglu, groups such as the “Grey Wolves”, and ideologies such as pan-Turanism – all ignore that it was the Assad regime’s forces which killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria last year, resulting in Ankara responding with drone attacks. They also seem to forget that Damascus and its allied militias are still prepared to attack Turkish forces.
Syrian refugees are not the enemies of the Turkish state, the Assad regime in Damascus is. Turkish ultranationalists please note.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.