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Anti-Syrian riots serve Ankara’s goal of refugee returns

While Ankara condemns anti-refugee riots and makes arrests in the wake of “the most violent wave of hatred” to date, Syrians in Turkey say the attacks indirectly serve the government’s goal of refugee returns as it signals normalization with Assad.

5 July 2024

PARIS — A troubled calm hangs over Turkey’s central Kayseri city, the epicenter of a rampage of anti-Syrian violence and vandalism that began there this past Sunday before spreading to other parts of the country. Syrians like Baraa Khattab are staying inside. On Thursday, she had not gone out for four days, ever since “the most violent wave of hatred against Syrians” began. 

“There are almost no Syrians in the streets. Their shops are closed, while they are staying home in a state of fear and terror,” Khattab told Syria Direct. She was in Kayseri visiting her family when the riots broke out, and soon found herself “under siege” with them. 

In Kayseri, angry Turkish mobs burned and smashed businesses and cars owned by Syrians on Sunday evening, with unrest soon spreading to other cities. The riots were sparked by accusations that a Syrian man sexually harassed a young girl. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has blamed “agents provocateurs” for the violence, emphasizing on July 2 that his government was dealing forcefully with “the hands that extend to the oppressed refugees in our country.” Ankara arrested 474 “of the provocateurs who burned, vandalized and attacked our police officers, damaging property, homes and workplaces,” he added. 

But Ankara’s hands are not clean, four Syrians in Turkey told Syria Direct, accusing Turkish authorities of playing a role in incitement against refugees and failing to deal decisively with attacks on Syrians. Even as the latest wave of violence broke out, Turkey’s Directorate of Migration was carrying out a campaign of arbitrary deportations

As they see it, xenophobic violence against Syrians aligns with Ankara’s broader push for refugees to go back to their country, particularly in light of recent official statements regarding the need to warm ties with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey cut ties with Syria in 2011. 

“Attacks on Syrians, and the chaos of laws against us” works to “distract Turkish citizens from the government’s shortcomings, economic crises and the currency collapse by focusing on Syrians,” Asmaa, a Syrian refugee originally from Damascus who has lived in Gaziantep for 12 years, said.

The growing possibility of Turkish normalization with the regime, coupled with anti-Syrian riots in Kayseri, also set off a wave of anger among Syrians in parts of northwestern Syria controlled by Ankara-backed opposition factions this week. Protesters burned the Turkish flag and chanted against normalization, anti-refugee policies and xenophobic violence. 

Demonstrators gathered near security positions and centers belonging to opposition factions and Turkish forces in northern Aleppo. In some areas, protests turned violent, with armed forces reportedly firing on and killing eight people and injuring dozens of others.

Pursued by fear

Sunday’s events in Kayseri were not the first of their kind. Similar violence broke out in Ankara in 2021, when Turkish citizens burned Syrian shops and cars in one of the capital city’s neighborhoods after a Turkish 18-year-old was killed in a fight with Syrians. Other cities, including Istanbul and Gaziantep, have also seen repeated rounds of anti-Syrian attacks.

However, the most extreme violence yet breaking out in nationalist and conservative Kayseri—a stronghold of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—indicates the “scale and severity of the problem,” one Syrian journalist in Istanbul told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for his safety.  

Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population, including an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees and more than 200,000 Syrian citizens of Turkey. Anti-Syrian sentiment has grown for years, with refugees becoming a political flashpoint amid economic hardship and rising nationalism. One 2021 study by the United Nations (UN) found that 82 percent of Turkish citizens believed Syrians should be sent back to their country.

In Gaziantep, a city near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, this week’s violence was limited compared to events in Kayseri. “Cars were burned and smashed in poor neighborhoods, but less than in Kayseri,” Asmaa said. The level of fear and panic among Syrians there, however, is “the same, because violence could explode at any moment,” she added.

Syrians in the city are also grappling with “a security campaign launched by the migration directorate to deport refugees,” she said, asking to be identified only by her first name for safety reasons.  

On Sunday evening, as mobs rampaged through Kayseri, in Gaziantep “a frightening silence” filled the streets, Asmaa recalled. “Few Turks were out, while Syrians stayed at home.” Early Monday morning, she disguised herself, “wearing a Turkish hijab” style before heading to work at a Syrian civil society organization. She wore “headphones during the walk, so nobody would talk to me and discover I am Syrian.” 

“I can’t believe what is happening to us—violence, hate and arbitrary deportation, to the point that it feels like we are terrorists,” Asmaa said. “Can you imagine what it means to be deported from your exile, where you have built a small community, to a new exile in northern Syria?”

Ömer Özkizilcik, a Turkish researcher interested in Syrian affairs, shares the Turkish government’s view of recent anti-Syrian violence, accusing the political opposition of responsibility. “People who are indirectly or directly affiliated with the Victory Party of Ümit Özdağ have organized themselves in Telegram and WhatsApp groups in each city,” prepared to take action, he said. “Most of these people have criminal records…and are ready to be violent,” looking to “exploit any potential opportunity to attack Syrians and create chaos and disorder, and this is what we have seen in Kayseri.” 

“These are not lynch mobs of some Turkish civilians going into the streets,” he added. “These are organized, pre-prepared lynch mobs which, in their mentality and organizational structure, have even a resemblance to European far-right racist mobs.” Özkizilcik cited incidents during the latest riots in which police dispersed crowds but “the organized mob gathered in the next street and attacked again.” 

Turkish negligence? 

Ankara has long responded forcefully to any incidents threatening its domestic security, especially following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. But during recent violence against Syrians, Asmaa felt there was “Turkish indifference to the mobbing, breaking and behavior of Turks against Syrians and their property.” 

“We are witnessing a radical change in Turkish policy, and we are living in life-changing terror,” she added. 

Bilal Satouf, a Syrian researcher living in Turkey, described the initial response to violence in Kayseri as “lax.” This could be “due to bureaucracy in the interior ministry given the wide spread [of Syrians] in Turkish cities, which makes the task of protecting them require large-scale measures like declaring a state of emergency,” he added. 

Protecting more concentrated populations of Syrians is more straightforward, as Turkish law enforcement has “intensified security measures in Syrian refugee camps to protect them and prevent protesters from approaching,” Satouf added. 

However, he did not discount a “deliberate” inaction by “some police officers, even though the police force has flexibility in how to deal with such incidents.” 

Meanwhile, the Turkish state exerts “indirect” pressure for Syrians to return, through “unlawful or unfair measures towards Syrians, such as unjustified deportations due to Kimlik [residence permits] or address registration issues,” Manhal Barish, another Syrian researcher in Turkey, said. 

At the level of public sentiment, government statements about “the amount of spending on Syrians, saying we spent $40 or $70 million dollars on refugees, when in reality it is European Union money,” help “fuel hate campaigns against Syrians,” Barish added. 

“The bigger problem is that there is no law criminalizing racism in Turkey, which emboldens the racists to do to Syrians what they like,” he said. “It is unacceptable for the government to [simply]  hurl accusations at the racists. Rather, it must enforce the law, criminalize racism and work to create a public culture towards refugees, far from political polarization.” 

“When you’re faced with two choices—living with attacks or escaping—you’ll choose to escape by returning to your country, despite its poor conditions,” Barish added. What is happening to Syrians in Turkey could rise to the level of forced displacement, he said. “Just like what happened due to the regime and Russia’s bombings, when Syrians left their livelihoods and fled for their lives, people today are leaving their livelihoods and fleeing for their lives.”

Özkizilcik downplayed the long-term impact of recent violence. “At the moment, the situation is under control,” he said. “The Turkish police [were] actually quite active, very rapid and fast in taking action. If the police would be slower, we would have seen much more chaos.” 

In addition to arresting Turkish citizens accused of directly participating in anti-Syrian violence, the Ministry of Justice and police are “in very heavy work identifying social media aggressors who tweeted disinformation and…posted on social media [using] hate speech and who incited violence against Syrians,” he added. 

On Thursday night, identifying information—including names, passport information, phone numbers and residential addresses—of at least 900,000 and up to 3 million Syrians in Turkey was leaked online, reportedly by a 14-year-old boy who authorities have arrested. The massive data breach has left Syrians in increased fear for their personal safety, after days of xenophobic violence. 

“The Turkish government, despite all of its flaws in the Syrian refugee issue, since and during the Kayseri incident has taken very strong action and has not allowed—has tried to prevent—these violent issues as much as possible,” Özkizilcik said. 

Cross-border fallout

As Syrians in Turkey sheltered in place this week, protests broke out in several cities and towns across the border in northwestern Syria in opposition to anti-refugee attacks and growing signs of normalization between Ankara and Damascus. 

Protesters shut down the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey and prevented Turkish trucks and cars from entering. In some cities, protests were met with gunfire, with Turkish and Turkish-backed forces accused of firing on demonstrators at Bab al-Salama and the Jenderes area of the Aleppo countryside. 

Tensions peaked in Afrin, where large-scale clashes broke out between armed parties. Syria Direct was not able to identify the groups involved in the exchange. However, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported five former fighters displaced from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus were killed in Afrin. 

The Syrian opposition’s political and military bodies, for their part, have been accused of playing a “negative” role in responding to violence against Syrians in Turkey. The Ankara-backed Syrian National Coalition released a statement on Monday condemning “riots and attacks” and calling on Syrians in the northwest not to be drawn into unrest. 

The Joint Force, a military body affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) said in a statement the same day that it stood with Syrians defending their rights, but rejected what it called an “assault on revolutionary institutions.” The Joint Force is accused of using live ammunition to suppress this week’s protests. 

Saif Abu Bakr, the commander of the SNA’ s Hamza Division—which is part of the Joint Force—posted pictures of Syrian fighters kissing and posing with the Turkish flag to social media on Monday, writing that “the Syrian National Army, the Joint Force and the Turkish Armed Forces have taken all necessary measures. No one will dare to destroy this brotherly relationship.”

An account on X, established in 2019 under the name of Fahim Issa, the commander of the SNA’s Sultan Murad Division, published a post on Tuesday saying he had ordered his men to shoot anyone trying to take down a Turkish flag. After the post met with significant uproar, the faction’s media office said the account was fake. 

The roots of the protests in northern Syria reach down to “the failure of Turkish policies in the region, the failure to implement a political, economic, military and security model,” researcher Satouf said. Most Syrian opposition institutions lack the “legal and political legitimacy of administering the area and representing the population,” he added. 

Three main factors directly contributed to the explosion of violence and unrest in northern Syria, Satouf said. First, statements by Turkey’s foreign minister and president regarding the possibility of normalization with the Syrian regime. Second, the opening of the Abu al-Zandin crossing between opposition and regime areas in Aleppo on June 28, which was met with protests. And third, and most importantly, the attacks in Kayseri. 

“Protesters draw a connection between Syrians facing racist campaigns and the path of normalization, seeing it as a way to return refugees,” Satouf said. 

On June 28, Erdoğan stated “there is no reason why diplomatic relations should not be established” between Ankara and Damascus. “We can continue in the same way as we did together in the past,” he added, not ruling out the possibility of meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restore bilateral ties.

“Turkey really wants to ease the burden on Turkish society by facilitating as much return to Syria as possible,” Özkizilcik said. “Many in the Turkish public, and some in the Turkish government, believe that normalizing relations with Assad can help facilitate the return of refugees.” He called this expectation “unwise and unrealistic,” citing the experiences of Lebanon and Jordan. 

After days of anger in northwestern Syria, the intensity of protests waned somewhat, in tandem with a decrease in the level of violence in Turkey. Satouf expects stability to return on both sides of the border, as “Turkey’s interests align with those of the population of northwestern Syria—for calm.” 

Protests in the northwest did not seek “an all-out confrontation with Turkey, but were a message to Ankara, warning of the danger of moving along the path of normalization, and its possible repercussions,” he said. However, they were “a small example of what the region could see if normalization continues,” he warned. 

Özkizilcik agreed, pointing to mass demonstrations that broke out in August 2022 in response to previous Turkish signals of normalization.  

“Normalizing with Assad, and speech by Turkish officials [that is] not very well calculated, can trigger such incidents, events and anger in northwest Syria,” Özkizilcik said. This, “in return, is being exploited by provocateurs who work for the Assad regime, who work for terrorist organizations, who try to incite the people against Turkey.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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