The explosion that rocked Istiklal Avenue, a busy commercial street in downtown Istanbul, on 13 November has once again thrown the Syrian refugees in Turkey into the public glare even though they had nothing to do with the incident.
Demands to deport them have resurfaced in Turkish politicians’ statements and media headlines, spreading alarm among Syrian refugees in Turkey that they could be forced to return to Syria where hostilities continue between the regime and opposition forces.
Turkish politicians and the country’s security services pointed the finger at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a movement that Turkey and the US have listed as a terrorist organisation. Police rounded up dozens of people, among them a Syrian woman who had reportedly confessed to having received training in northern Syria with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDP) that Turkey, but not the US, claims is a branch of the PKK.
Both the PKK and the SDP have denied responsibility for the attack.
Despite the fact that the PKK includes members of Turkish, Iraqi, and Syrian nationality, and even though the majority of Syrians residing in Turkey reject the practices of the Kurds in northeastern Syria, it appears that they are being used as pawns in domestic Turkish political games. These have been growing more intense against the backdrop of preparations for the Turkish general elections in 2023.
“In order fully to understand this terrorist incident it is important to bear in mind its timing,” said Syrian opposition analyst Said Muqbil. “It occurred as the Turkish elections are approaching and after a lull in the campaigns in Turkey against the Syrian refugees and in tandem with reports of a possible normalisation of relations between Ankara and the Syrian regime at time when the economic deterioration in Turkey has begun to tangibly affect people’s lives.”
Some Turkish analysts maintain that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been taking advantage of the bombing to tighten security and control over the media ahead of the elections. Others counter that the Turkish opposition forces are capitalising on it to notch up their criticism of the government for supporting the Syrian refugee presence in Turkey for so long.
A third camp suspects that Ankara plans to use the incident as a pretext to launch a full-scale attack against the US-backed SDP in northeastern Syria. Such an incursion seemed immanent in June when Turkey amassed forces along its border with northern Syria, but the government’s talk of a new military operation has since subsided.
Turkish opposition parties have also stoked anti-Syrian sentiment as a means to win votes and undermine support for the AKP. The AKP government has committed itself to supporting and protecting the Syrian refugees and only repatriating them to Syria in the framework of a political settlement and assurances of a safe environment for their return.
“All these reasons are related to Turkish domestic politics and economic affairs,” Muqbil said. “However, millions of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey will pay the price, even though the majority of them, like the majority of Turks, oppose the PKK and the Kurdish SDP because they realise that the leaders of those forces have no relationship with the Syrian people. The Syrian opposition refers to the SDP as Kurdish forces occupying northern Syria.”
In the aftermath of the Istiklal Avenue bombing, anti-Syrian sentiment has also been on the rise in the surge of anti-refugee hate speech and calls for their deportation on Turkish social media. Taha Al-Ghazi, a Syrian who follows Turkish discourse on the Syrian question, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the incident has adversely affected many Syrian families in Turkey who are now afraid to go out to parks and other public spaces. The problem is that they are being linked to terrorism because of their nationality, even though terrorism is an inhumane act that has no nationality.”
“Some political and media trends in Turkey have exploited the situation and focused on the nationality of the perpetrator to the exclusion of all other factors.”
If the Turkish authorities start deporting Syrian refugees in order to quell the mounting sentiments against them, the refugees will have no alternative but to accept their fate. But few will be pleased to return home, regardless of whether to areas controlled by the regime or the opposition.
Such areas are still unsafe, and they do not offer an environment where they can enjoy a free and dignified life without fear. Many might even contemplate illegal migration to Europe by way of Greece despite the risks.
Around 3.7 million Syrians currently reside in Turkey, which welcomed them and showed them generous hospitality after the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011. In recent years, however, they have been the object of waves of hostility.
Often the source has been in the Turkish opposition parties, especially those from the ultranationalist right which have deliberately fanning the flames of hatred as a means of tapping into the general discontent in Turkey at rising prices and deteriorating standards of living, attempting to channel it into political gains for themselves and losses for the ruling party.
They have tried to make the refugees into the scapegoat for all the country’s ills, from unemployment to crime rates. Some have gone as far as to describe the refugees as “Turkey’s greatest problem and obstacle to progress.”
Many studies have shown how stereotypical images of refugees are linked to the economic conditions and sociopolitical trends of the host country. This applies to Turkey, where it has been clear that the stereotypes of the Syrian refugees that some parties have tried to disseminate have no bearing on reality.
While such images are fabricated from rumours, logical fallacies, and pure imagination, they can leave imprints that are not easily erased.
These could have a detrimental impact on the lives of the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled the horrors of war in their homeland.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.