by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 5, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1443)
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan has unfortunately gained notoriety for opportunism. Whether it is his constant betrayal of the Palestinians or Syrian refugees, his conduct is highly erratic. Strong on rhetoric, his actions show a very different picture. The Qur’an uses the word ‘munafiq’ for such people whose primary concern is personal interest. Principles are not allowed to influence their decisions.
Take the case of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. He personally encouraged them to flee Syria and promised to provide them refuge in Turkey. Erdogan exploited the Syrian refugees’ plight to garner sympathy for his campaign against Syria. Turkish troops also entered and occupied north-east Syria where they are still in control of large swathes of territory, especially the Idlib province. Turkey’s welcoming mat is wearing thin and Syrian refugees are being forced to leave.
There are 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, mainly in Hatay province. There are several reasons for Turkey turning sour on the refugees. Despite Erdogan’s Islamic rhetoric, at heart he is a Turkish nationalist. The vast majority of Turks also display a strong streak of nationalism.
With the country’s economy in tailspin and the lira nose-diving, opposition parties have been quick to capitalise on the issue of Syrian refugees. They blame Erdogan’s refugee policy for the ailing economy. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), promised to send back the Syrians once it is elected. It led to anti-Syrian refugee riots in Ankara last August. The situation was exacerbated further when a Syrian killed a Turkish man in a street dispute.
The CHP has since dialed down its racist rhetoric but the worst sentiments of the people have been aroused. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu tried to soften his position by meeting with Syrian representatives to find a way to ‘peacefully send the Syrians back’ to their country.
Once the nationalistic genie is let out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in again. Syrians are discriminated against in jobs. Even if they find employment, they are exploited by paying them low wages.
Kilicdaroglu may have softened his stand, others have jumped on the bandwagon. One of them is Umit Ozdag, a right-wing politician and the chairman of the Victory Party, who has promised to send millions of Syrian, Afghans and Pakistanis back to their countries. While the Syrians and Afghans fall under the category of refugees, the Pakistanis do not. They are regular workers in search of employment. Turkish nationalists, however, do not distinguish between refugees and migrant workers, especially at a time when the Turkish economy is in difficult straits.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan has announced plans to return around one million Syrians to the north of the country. In May, Ankara said it plans to build housing and provide services in regions held by Turkish-backed forces in Syria to send back up to one million Syrians.
At the same time, Erdogan announced that Ankara would launch yet another military operation to capture the northern Syrian towns of Manbij and Tal Rifaat from the pro-Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG). The Syrian government has taken strong exception to this illegal Turkish move and vowed to resist it.
Ankara projects Turkish nationalism as a card to attract Turkic people in Central Asia and Azerbaijan under its wings. While it uses nationalism abroad, at home it adopts a different posture as is evident from its treatment of even Turkmens, an ethnically Turkish minority in Syria. Even they are not welcome in Turkey. The Turks accuse them of having a different lifestyle.
Faced with such grim prospects, many Syrians have voluntarily returned to their homes in Syria. Others have trekked across Greece to cross over into Europe, whether Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands or Britain. Others have taken the perilous journey in dingy boats, often drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Regrettably, the Europeans are not very welcoming either. Like Turkey, they have exploited the plight of Syrian refugees for political ends but are not willing to provide them shelter.
Erdogan projects himself as ‘leader’ of the Muslim Ummah concerned about their plight, especially refugees. The TV drama, Ertugrul Ghazi has been used to good effect to project Erdogan as the modern-day Ertugrul reflecting Turkish power and glory. While in the TV drama, Ertugrul plays a noble role fighting against oppressors, Erdogan comes nowhere close to matching that character. Instead, he has indulged in all kinds of disruptive activities that have caused great suffering to innocent people.
After more than 11 years of blood-letting in Syria in which a number of unsavoury characters played a despicable role, the foreign-backed conspiracy has largely been defeated. The Syrian refugees were a useful tool to use against the government in Damascus. With the refugees outliving their usefulness, they are being shunned and discriminated against.
There is no limit to the cynicism of political opportunists that play with the lives of innocent people.