For many Syrians, this election was a referendum on their presence and status in Turkey.
The results of the Turkish elections are in and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won the presidential poll with just under 53 percent of the vote, while the governing AK Party have lost their single majority in parliament but will be able to govern with the support of their electoral allies, the MHP.
One of the most crucial issues in the region, but for Turkey in particular, is the ongoing situation in Syria and the plight of Syrian refugees.
Over the course of the seven years of the genocidal, counter-revolutionary conflict, Assad, Iran and Russia have led to 6 million Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries. The single largest population–now almost four million–have found safety in Turkey, which hosts vast refugee camps that have essentially transformed into sometimes burgeoning towns, with thousands of businesses springing up as Syrians try to live as normal a life possible outside of their homeland.
Turkey has done the most of any nation on earth to provide aid not simply to Syrian refugees, but also to internally displaced persons – all in all, Turkey is thought to have aided up to 13 million Syrians affected by the war. In addition to this, Turkey has provided military aid to Syrians seeking to overthrow the Assad regime and defend their land from foreign invaders, whether Iranian or Russian.
Given the dismal levels of indifference not just to the root cause of this catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian people, Turkey’s aid to Syrians has been precious. If not for the Turkish effort—a society-wide enterprise that goes beyond the government—to aid Syrian refugees, the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II would be even worse.
But not everything is rosy for Syrians in Turkey – aside from problems they face, such as issues surrounding family reunification and often subpar living standards, the greatest fear has been a racist backlash against their very presence in Turkey.
The main opposition forces in Turkey have been ramping up rhetoric and racist propaganda against Syrians to cultivate and exploit racism against them. The CHP, the single largest opposition party and the main force in the ‘Nation’s Alliance’, launched a social media campaign claiming Syrian refugees are forcing up the rent prices, stealing the jobs of and, perhaps most sinister, threatening the security of Turks (eliding Syrian refugees with ISIS (Daesh) is not uncommon). Most of this will sound familiar to readers from the UK who saw those three basic racist arguments utilised so well in the Brexit referendum, as well as those in the US who witnessed and continue to witness Trump’s racist exploitation of ‘immigrants’ and asylum seekers.
The rise of this kind of racism attached to the revitalisation of the far and populist right is a global phenomenon, but its spectre hangs most maliciously over Europe and the west.
Indeed, it was during a recent opposition rally that the presidential candidate of the CHP said that he would send four million Syrians back to Syria, which prompted ominous celebrations from the huge crowd. This call to simply send all Syrian refugees back to Turkey was echoed by Meral Aksener, the presidential candidate of the CHP’s electoral allies the Iyi (Good) Party.
She claimed that the $36 billion spent on Syrian refugees ought to be spent on Turks instead, also claiming that the AK Party "have intervened in Syria’s internal politics and then we had 4 million Syrian refugees...all citizens are free and happy in their own country … after I am elected, my first action will be to fix our relations with Syria and to send the 4 million [Syrians]…back to their countries."
And Aksener’s will to blame the AK Party for the situation in Syria and her vow to ‘fix our relations with Syria’ (meaning Assad’s rump state) was one of the main fears for Syrians in Turkey.
Dani Qappani, a Syrian refugee and activist living in Turkey said that while he wasn’t scared about being sent back to Syria due to the good relations and social solidarity between Syrians and Turks, his main fear was the Turkish opposition triumphing and normalising relations with Assad. “What we many of us fear is how the opposition deals with the situation in Syria,” Dani tells me. “We fear they will deal with Assad again give up defending the Syrian revolution.”
Dani was correct to believe that the opposition would completely change Turkish policy towards a more conciliatory approach with Assad, with Ince saying that he feels no antipathy towards Assad and that coming to terms with his regime is the only way to ensure Syrians can leave Turkey. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP, also claimed that Turkey must work with and embrace Assad, Russia and Iran to “establish peace”. It goes without saying that the ‘peace’ they have in mind simply means the triumph of Assad. The AK Party’s policy on Syria is open to much criticism, but under their governance Turkey remains the only force willing to “defend the revolution”, as Dani puts it.
It’s due to Erdogan’s will to enforce a safe zone in Idlib that Assad, Iran and Russia have not yet looked to conquer the last-remaining liberated province of Syria, with Turkish forces aiding Syrian opposition forces to both fight Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, while providing weaponry to those forces resisting any attempts by the Assad axis to advance in the region.
In terms of Syria and Syrians, the AK Party’s victory can only be considered as a progressive outcome. Though the AK Party will need to rule with the nationalist MHP, who have in the past indulged in anti-refugee rhetoric, they have in the past few years since growing closer to the AK Party moderated their stance and it’s widely believed that they understand the situation of Syrians to be non-negotiable in terms of concessions.
Syria is of course not the only or main issue for Turks or Kurds, but the reality is that the war in Syria is ground zero for Russian imperialist expansionism and Iranian hegemony over the region, with far-right parties across Europe exploiting the so-called refugee crisis to gain power.
Erdogan and the AK Party have come under rightful criticism, but in the eyes of Syrians like Qappani while the “so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ disappoint and let Syrians down, Mr. Erdogan seems to be a light in the darkness.”
Though in the West the coverage of politics in Turkey is often oversimplified and words like ‘dictatorship’ and ‘tyranny’ are bandied around with no real nuance, the effect of witnessing democracy in Turkey on Syrians is not something that can be balked at. Qappani reminds me that while only 30,000 Syrian refugees can vote in the elections, the process itself is something they feel included in. “We can be part of something [democracy] that we only dreamt of in Syria,” Dani says, adding, “I watched many Syrians gathering with Turkish people celebrating, and I saw many happy Syrians in the streets…all of them, I think, had tears in their eyes, the same as I had, because we deeply wanted this kind of democratic election to take place in Syria.”
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