What will happen to Syrian refugees after Turkey’s election?
Turkey is among the many regional and international players that pursued mistaken policies in Syria, fueling the civil war in Syria that has led to the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.
The number of critics of this policy is high among ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials and the party’s voters. Discontent about the high number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is the source of their criticism.
While the world refugee day was marked yesterday June 20, more than currently more than 5.6 million Syrians are living as refugees outside Syria.Nearly 4 million Syrians live in Turkey, making it the country hosting the world’s largest refugee population.
Ironically, while many AKP officials and supporters are unhappy with the assistance provided to the Syrian refugees, it is precisely this generous hospitality that must be allowing some of the AKP’s leaders - among them former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the key figure shaping Ankara’s Syria policy - to sleep at night, despite their role in the suffering of millions of people.
In contrast to Europe’s despicable attitude toward refugees, I have no doubt that Turkey, Turks and Turkish institutions should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Price if it was not for the deteriorating image of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and with him the image of the country.
Regardless of some of the hateful rhetoric you might come across on social media against Syrian refugees, as well as the fact that Turkey is obviously not a country with the best track record of tolerance toward different ethnic and religious groups, one thing is for certain: It has shown an exemplary approach toward Syrians.
While 30,000 Syrians who have gained Turkish citizenship are preparing to cast their votes in the June 24 election, the government’s policy on Syrian refugees has been on the agenda of the opposition’s presidential candidates.
Both the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem İnce and the İYİ (Good) Party’s candidate Meral Akşener have criticized the money spent on refugees, saying that this money should be dedicated to other priorities and directly or indirectly saying refugees will be sent back to Syria.
In the initial days of the Afrin operation last January, Erdoğan also said that after the operation work will start to send back Syrian refugees to their home country. But neither he nor other AKP representatives have been vocal on the issue during the electoral campaign.
Ankara’s priority in Syria has shifted from toppling Bashar al–Assad regime to securing the Turkey–Syria border by preventing the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian wing from gaining predominance in the border regions. Turkey’s cross-border operations in Syria are mainly about rolling back the military and political gains of the PKK’s Syrian wing. They also aim to maintain some kind of stability that will enable the return of refugees and prevent further new waves of refugees (which remains a possibility if the regime forces are to attack Idlib, where opposition forces have been pushed).
If Erdoğan and his party win on June 24, Turkey will continue to consolidate its positions while encouraging the slow but gradual return of refugees. It will also put pressure on Russia and Iran to use their leverage on Damascus to prevent a regime attack on Idlib.
If the opposition wins the elections, although a direct dialogue channel will likely be opened with the al-Assad regime, the Syrian leader will not make life easy for Ankara. The withdrawal of Turkish soldiers, as well as the fate of the opposition forces, some of which have been supported by Turkey, will lead to thorny negotiations and delay a fast return of refugees. An attack on Idlib to force Turkey to accept Damascus’ terms cannot be excluded, which means that the leadership in Ankara will find itself trying to handle a new flow of refugees instead of making plans to send them back.
It would be difficult to imagine the opposition making radical cuts to the assistance provided to refugees, though the budget earmarked for humanitarian assistance in more distant places like Africa and Asia could be channeled back for Syrians.
At any rate, whoever governs Turkey for the next four years will have to accept that a high number of Syrian refugees are here to stay for at least some more years to come.