The Fears of Syrians Living in Turkey

During the hours of the failed coup against the Turkish government last month, Syrians living Turkey—including refugees, employees, politicians, and journalists—were just as anxious as the Turks. The same anxiety was present when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Russia on Tuesday, August 10, to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Will he kick us out of Turkey?” was the question on many Syrians’ lips during the coup. Perhaps their greatest fears were perhaps that Turkish policy would change if the military came to power. Many Syrians worried that if the coup succeeded they would be forced to return to Syria. Some are wanted by the regime or extremist military factions like the Islamic State (ISIS) and those around it, while others were worried that their investments or concessions granted to them by the Turkish government would be disrupted.

The Freedom and Development Party managed to remain in power. However, certain changes have started to take place, building on the changes that started last year. In March 2015, Ankara announced that it would be closing the border with Syria to civilians until further notice, except for emergency cases and convoys of aid from international organizations. “God have mercy, we used to cross the border whenever,” was many Syrians’ response, pointing to the difference between regulated and unregulated crossings. Prior to these changes, Turkish border guards had never fired at people fleeing, but this gave the green light to shoot at anyone.

There are nine crossings between Syria and Turkey. Starting in northwest Syria and moving east, there is the Kessab crossing, then the Bab al-Hawa crossing, then Bab al-Salameh, north of Aleppo, then the Jarabulus and Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî) crossings, and then Tell Abyad crossing and Ras al-Ayn crossing, al-Qamishli crossing (corresponding to Nusaybin in Turkey), and finally Ain Diwar in the furthest northeast of Syria.

Some crossings are still the lifeblood for Syrian regions no longer under regime control, passageways for people fleeing from areas of fighting in Syria. Following the announcement that borders would be closing, security tightened significantly, and border traffic dropped to its lowest level this year.

Making matters worse for Syrians who want to come to Turkey was the new entry visa requirement that was imposed at the beginning of this year. Visas are difficult to obtain, especially for Syrians who want to cross through Lebanon, because getting passports, which are needed to schedule an interview at the embassy, is nearly impossible. Even if people do make it there, there is very little hope of receiving approval to enter Turkish territory, and Turkey does not allow Syrians to apply to reunite their families from Turkish embassy in Beirut (Bab al-Salama border crossing in Turkey is the only location where Syrians can apply for family reunification).

Administrative changes aside, very little has changed on the ground since these decisions were released. Syrians in Turkey continue to receive a degree of concessions, such as the government’s decision this year to lift the requirement that Syrians who have overstayed their visa and are hoping to obtain tourist visas or residency and work permits must exit and reenter the country. Furthermore, living conditions in Turkey are still better than elsewhere for Syrians, and there is little danger for people who overstaying their visa in Turkey, as is the case in other countries that have accepted Syrians.

It appears that Ankara has begun to reconsider Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors, the West, and the tripartite Turkish-Russian-Iranian alliance, and that these reconsiderations have entered into force. Accordingly, there is much speculation on what the outcomes will be, and what impact this will have on Syrians in Turkey, who are distributed across camps in different cities and number nearly 800,000 according to UN figures.

The Syrian opposition is split with regards to this. Some think that Turkey’s president will hold firm to his position, and not make concessions to Russia or Iran with regards to Bashar al-Assad. They predict Tehran and Moscow may fall in line with Erdogan’s position, particularly given that Iran and Turkey agreed that the establishment of Kurdish rule in northern Syria is a red line.

Others read into Erdogan’s apology for the accidental downing of a Russian plane on the Syrian border, and his acknowledgement of Putin’s general stance when Putin was the first leader to call Erdogan and congratulate him that the coup had failed. They believe this indicates that Ankara will begin to lean towards Tehran and Moscow’s position with regards to the Syrian solution—a possibility that exacerbates fears.

These worries aside, there is significant optimism in the aftermath of the failed coup. This arises from statements by Erdogan that indicate a possibility of naturalization for Syrians, going so far as to say that the door of citizenship will be open to Syrians when the Freedom and Development Party finishes its campaign against those who staged the coup. Yet many optimists disregarded the fact that Erdogan’s statements on naturalization implied that Syrians with in-demand skill sets would be the ones to be naturalized. If such a step does take place, it seems it would be selective.

Turkey’s recent military mobilization to support combatants in the Syrian Free Army and seizing Jarabulus in northern Syria from ISIS has led to other predications. In particular, some Syrians are concluding that Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s interests have converged to prevent the Kurds’ dream of creating a “Syrian Kurdistan.” Others interpreted Turkey’s latest intervention as paving the way for establishing ‘safe zones,’ an idea Turkey proposed for northern Syria several years ago.

Despite political shifts and changes, the situation on the ground remains relatively unchanged. Even Syrian refugees with their own Turkish identity card (Kimlik) still have restricted movement. They cannot leave the city they live in and travel to other cities in Turkey without security approval—yet another official permission that is difficult to obtain. Though Turkey limits the movement of registered refugees, it had exempted Syrians from that policy until mid-2015.

Hasan Arfeh is a Syrian journalist based in Turkey. He currently works for Radio Rozana.

Image: Photo: A man sits in front of the Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal