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Intel Brief: Anti-Syrian unrest in Turkey risks reigniting tensions between Syria and Turkey

 
Turkey-Syria map

Date: 04/07/2024

Where: Turkey or Republic of Türkiye, Turkish-controlled northern Syria

Who’s involved: Turkish President Erdogan, Turkish political opposition, Syrian refugees, Syrian President Assad




What happened?

  • On 30/06/2024, anti-Syrian riots erupted in Kayseri province, central Turkey. Turkish residents stormed and torched businesses and properties of Syrian nationals. The unrest was sparked by allegations of sexual assault against a minor by a Syrian. 

  • The unrest spread to the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Konya, Bursa and several cities, including Istanbul. Over 470 people were arrested for suspected involvement in the riots. Turkish authorities called for calm and heightened security at the Syrian consulate in Istanbul. 

  • On 01/07/2024, Turkish President Erdogan blamed the opposition parties for promoting anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia that spurred the violent riots. In response, Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has pointed to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party or AKP) and its refugee policy as culpable for the escalation of violence and for turning Turkey into "a refugee depot." The CHP called for a revision of Turkish foreign and refugee policy. 

  • On 02/07/2024, Turkey closed its border with Syria after Turkish forces clashed with Syrian protesters in the Syrian border city of Afrin, in the Ankara-controlled northern Syria. Seven people were killed in the clashes. Protests and acts of violence are spreading elsewhere in Turkish-controlled north Syria calling for the withdrawal of Turkish forces, with hundreds of Syrians taking to the streets, attacks on Turkish convoys and Turkish flags being removed. 

  • The escalation of violence, both in Turkey and in Turkish-controlled north Syria, came a few days after both Turkish President Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad signaled their willingness to normalize relations and restore bilateral ties between the countries, interrupted after the 2011 Syrian civil wars. The separate announcement came after Turkey reopened, in late June 2024, the Abu Al-Zandeen crossing near the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab, restoring trade routes and connecting Turkish-controlled and Syrian government-controlled areas in eastern Aleppo. This triggered massive protests on 28/06/2024 from the Syrian population.

Analysis:

  • With nearly four million refugees, Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population. Most of them, approximately 3.6 million, are Syrian. Initially welcomed as refugees under temporary protection status in Turkey following the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011, Syrian nationals have been experiencing increasing hostility from the local population in recent years. 

  • The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey is firstly related to the current economic situation in the country. Since 2018, Turkey has been experiencing a deep economic crisis, which worsened in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Currency devaluation, rising inflation, rising cost of living, and a high unemployment rate have fueled resentment toward immigrants and refugees perceived as competitors in the labor market and a burden on the welfare state.

  • Moreover, the opposition’s strong criticism of President Erdogan’s flexible refugee police and his refugee deal with the EU seems to be a factor in the spread of anti-immigrant rhetoric and protests. During the May 2023 general election campaign, the main opposition party, the CHP, focused its political agenda on nationalist rhetoric and the repatriation of Syrians. Moreover, in recent years, new parties with a prominent anti-immigrant and anti-Syrian narrative have emerged, including the far-right Victory Party founded in 2021. Although these parties gained little support in the 2023 elections, President Erdogan claimed that their anti-immigrant rhetoric is fomenting the recent new escalation of violence and resentment against the Syrian refugee population. 

  • The recent riots are not the first xenophobic protests in Turkey targeting Syrians. An analogous event happened in 2021 when massive anti-Syrian riots broke out in the capital, Ankara, following the death of a Turkish teenager during a fight with a group of Syrians. 

  • Beyond Turkey, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment is expanding in the region. In Lebanon, home of 1.5 millions of Syrian refugees, resentment and violence against refugees increased since the start of the economic crisis in 2019. In April 2024, Syrian communities were attacked by the local population and  Lebanon security forces, following the abduction and killing of a major figure of a Christian party. The same anti-immigrant shift is also visible in other “safe havens” for refugees, including Tunisia, where the rising anti-refugee sentiments and violence led to discriminatory regulations and treatments of Sub-Saharan migrants. In recent months, the Tunisian government launched an unprecedented crackdown and abuse campaign against migrants, refugees and human rights defenders.

  • The new escalation of violence risks reinforcing the already volatile situation and undermining the normalization efforts between Turkey and Syria, already jeopardized by recent protests in Syria after the reopening of the Abu Al-Zandeen crossing. Relations between Turkey and Syria have been strained since 2011, after the outbreak of Syrian civil war, as Turkey supported the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Moreover, Turkey still controls a buffer zone in northern Syria, which has been the reason for the failure of previous attempts at normalization as Aleppo has repeatedly stated that respect for the Syrian sovereignty and the withdrawal of Turkish forces from its territory are preconditions for the restoration of bilateral relations. 

  • Several factors may play a role in promoting normalization between Turkey and Syria, including regional dynamics like the Israel-Hamas conflict and the possibility of the outbreak of a regional war in southern Lebanon. Moreover, restoring relations with the Assad regime is crucial for Turkey to eliminate the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), active in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq,  and terrorist groups like Daesh/ISIS. Finally, the Turkey-Syria normalization would be the first step toward advancing the Turkish plan to repatriate Syrian refugees to their home country. However, to enable them to return safely, the Assad regime will first have to accept a democratic political transition.


Conclusion:

The recent escalation of violence against Syrian refugees in Turkey indicates an unprecedented upsurge in anti-refugee sentiments in the country. Anti-refugee riots are already spreading across the country, and there is a risk that they could escalate as occurred in 2021, jeopardizing the security of the Syrian population in Turkey and further exacerbating the social, political, and economic exclusion of refugees in the country. Moreover, despite normalization efforts between the two countries, the unrest in Turkey and the outbreak of new violence and protests in Turkish-controlled northern Syria risk further deteriorating relations between Turkey and Syria. Heightened violence targeting refugees in Turkey comes on top of a volatile regional situation due to ongoing conflicts and the widespread anti-immigrant narrative gaining momentum in the region. 


 
04072024 IntelBrief_ Anti-Syrian unrest in Turkey risks reigniting tensions between Syria
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