Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Turkey at a geopolitical crossroads – Part I

An interview with Adam Szymański, associate professor with the Institute of Political Science at the University of Warsaw. Interviewer: Jim Blackburn

May 13, 2016 - Adam Szymański - Interviews


JIM BLACKBURN: Turkey has taken in nearly three million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War (with even more expected in the future), which the European Union has passed some funding to help the Turkish government deal with this influx, but it seems like an overwhelming amount of displaced persons for one nation to take in. How has this affected Turkish society and where exactly are all these refugees mainly located?

ADAM SZYMAŃSKI: The influx of refugees from Syria (which results from the Syrian conflict and is connected with the “open-door” policy of the Turkish government) has become in recent years a large problem for the Turkish state and society. At the end of 2013 there were about 1 million people from Syria only (there are also refugees from other countries like Iraq as an example where ISIS operates as well), at the end of 2015 it was already about 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Only about 300,000 of them lived at the end of 2015 in 25 camps in the Turkish provinces near the border with Syria (first of all in Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep). The rest went to the cities and towns in different parts of the country. From the geographical point of view most refugees stay in the southern and south-eastern part of Turkey – from Şırnak to Mersin and Karaman, in Ankara and Konya provinces in central Anatolia, to Istanbul and provinces in north-western Turkey between Ankara and Istanbul.

The problems connected with the refugee influx concerns first of all the people outside the camps, and only to a certain extent, the refugees in the camps. They can be divided into four categories: formal-institutional, socio-economic, security and cultural-ethnic problems.

Turkey has been facing the problem of refugees for many years. However, the formal-institutional framework has not been adjusted to the current situation yet, which is troublesome for the Turkish state, particularly in the context of the agreement with the European Union about keeping the refugees in Turkey. First, in 2014 Turkey adopted regulations on the temporary protection of people coming from Syria and other countries. It means in practice that they have the status of “guests” who are permitted to stay on Turkish territory only for a limited time. They have a limited right to work (although the Turkish government recently adopted regulations making the access for these people to the Turkish labour market easier), likewise with access to education and health care. The adjustment of the Turkish law to the international and EU law in this field is still a work in progress.

However, from the point of view of Turkish society most problems concern social and economic issues, which often generate tensions. It is true that we can often observe a sense of brotherhood among Turks who help Syrian refugees treating them as mujahir – persecuted or forced to flee like the Prophet Muhammad and people from Mecca. It is also correct that the establishment of camps for the Syrian refugees brought some benefits for Turks, particularly for certain regions. They have been employed as the administrative staff of camps or employees of the facilities organised for Syrians like grocery shops, laundry rooms, health and educational centres. On the other hand, the costs of maintenance for the camps and their facilities are high and the need for more aid for the refugees is constantly growing.

Moreover, the competition between the Syrians working illegally for very low wages and Turkish legal wage earners has been developed – to the disadvantage of the legal worker. The appearance of an increasing number of people also resulted in the rising cost of living and prices for housing – with regard to both renting and purchasing property. In Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Kilis the property prices doubled and rents increased threefold already by 2014.

As well, some Turkish institutions such as schools and hospitals are under strain. The schools are not able to guarantee education services for all Syrian children (particularly outside the camps). This includes special Turkish language courses. The hospitals have difficulties with admitting all the additional patients, whose numbers are increasing due to illnesses that sometimes spread in the refugee camps due to the lack of proper medication and sanitation. The Turkish residents of nearby towns complain that they have to now share their water supply, sewage systems or green areas with the Syrian refugees. In their opinion it causes problems because they often dump much more garbage or consume much more water than the Turkish populations themselves.

The aforementioned problem of disease represents another group of negative consequences connected with the refugee influx. It concerns a danger for the safety of the Turkish and Syrian people living in the regions near the border with Syria, as well as for the internal security of the Turkish state. There is a legal influx of refugees, but many of them have crossed the border illegally. They often become members of gangs smuggling petrol and other goods. The smugglers have sometimes attacked the border posts in the past. In addition, the bad economic situation among refugees has resulted in the development of petty crime and black markets in the regions that neighbour on Syria.

Unrest is frequent in the camps. This is in part because of a lack of sufficient Turkish resources that can be delivered to the refugees living in such close proximity, which enhances frustration among refugees. Also unemployment is high. There are also psychological problems connected with living far away from homes, the lack of a purposeful life and the opinion that there is no opportunity for “self-realisation” in Turkey.

Another security problem concerns the non-camp refugees. They do not always reside in houses or flats. They often live in ruins or even in the open air. This makes them vulnerable to all kind of abuse, which is particularly true with regard to women and children. There are reports for example of many cases of sexual violence.


There are also ethnic and religious differences between the Syrian refugees (many of whom are Alawites and Shiite Syrians) and the local community (first of all Sunnis), which create tensions, particularly in the situation in which the number of refugees starts to exceed the number of local people (although there are exceptions like the town of Kilis). When it comes to the religious-cultural issues, the presence of the Syrians creates dilemmas from the legal (and social) point of view. For instance, husbands of Turkish women marry women among the Syrian community in the south-eastern towns becoming their second or third wives, which is in accordance with the Syrian law but against Turkish regulations. This issue also leads to tensions as Turkish women complain that Syrians steal not only jobs or food but also their spouses.

Turkey is currently in the centre of a storm of conflicting international interests: the United States and its allies the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, the EU and the refugee crisis, Russia’s interest in keeping Assad in power – and the lingering unresolved issue of Cyprus. Turkey itself seems to be focused most prominently on fighting the Kurdish people of its own country. What is in essence driving this conflict with the Kurds? And is there a possible resolution that would satisfy both sides?

The conflict is rooted in the foundations of the Republic of Turkey and connected with the role of Turkish nationalism (milliyetçilik), which still plays a substantial role in Turkish politics, although other forms of nationalism have appeared as well, including the so-called Muslim nationalism. The concept of unity of nation and state, developed after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in order to strengthen the territorial integrity and independence of the new state, has always been a major constitutional principle. Throughout Turkish history, it has led to the development of the model of the centralised state and the concept of citizenship based on the constitutional rule that every citizen of the Republic of Turkey is a Turk. As a result, the minorities and their rights were not recognised in this state for a long time. Together with the development of Kurdish identity (nationalism), and its manifestation in the social and political life of Turkey, the so called Kurdish issue appeared. Although it has had many dimensions, including the question of political and cultural rights and the economic underdevelopment of south-eastern Turkey, the Turkish government has associatedit for a long time solely as a problem of terrorism, mainly as a conflict between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkish security forces.

At the turn of 21st century the situation did change. The existence of Kurds was recognised and some rights were given to them, mainly due to the EU pre-accession process of Turkey, which required reforms in the area of minorities. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) seemed to be the closest party to solving the Kurdish situation, in recent years even having started talks with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan within the peace process. However, it appeared that this party (and interestingly most opposition parties), still gives absolute priority to the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the positive approach to the Kurdish issue is just a game aimed at securing electoral support.

It became obvious, first within the regional dimension when the Syrian Kurds started to gain a kind of autonomy in Rojava in 2013 following their brothers in Iraq. Turkish government officials then expressed their strong opposition to this kind of activity. Later when it was necessary – due to the electoral loses in June 2015 parliamentary elections – the previously declared brotherhood with the Turkish Kurds was transformed into nationalistic rhetoric (not for the first time). The next step was a firm reaction to the breaking of the ceasefire by the PKK (which was also not honest when it comes to its real intentions concerning the peace process), with the intervention of the army leading to the escalation of the conflict on both sides. A call for a kind of autonomy from the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) was met with strong opposition from the Turkish government. It reflected clearly the continued devotion to the principle of the unity of state and nation.

It seems again that for the governing elite there is no Kurdish issue, everything is just seen as terrorist activities of the PKK and the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party), which has close links to the former organisation. The Turkish government’s policy is recently aimed at convincing the international community, first of all the US, that the Syrian PYD should be recognised as terrorists (although it helps the US to fight against ISIS). That is why after the terrorist attacks in Ankara in February and March 2016, they announced immediately that people connected with the PYD were behind the attacks, although it appeared later that it was members of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – a break-away faction of the PKK. Because of this, the return to peace talks (this is the appeal of the international community) is very problematic in the next few years, particularly in a situation with a lack of an interlocutor and the accusation that the HDP supports the PKK terrorists, as well as the AKP plans to revoke immunity for deputies from the HDP.

Further on the Kurdish issue, the Kurdish people of Syria with support from its allies the United States, founded the autonomous region of Rojava in 2013 that has great potential for future statehood. It is by many accounts a safe, stable, and secular region. It has a population of 5 million (just a fraction of the 32 million that make up the Kurdish people themselves), with a constitutional government based on direct democracy (reminiscent of the ancient Athenian model), gender equality, and freedom of religion. Could this state, if brought to fruition by the support of the US and EU, have the possibility of becoming a bastion or model of a democratic secular state in the Middle East? Is there any possibility, perhaps in the long term for Turkey to support such a neighbor state, especially since Rojava seems to embody the Turkish philosophy of Kemalism and the Six Arrows?

The establishment of an independent state in northern Syria (Rojava) is rather impossible, even from a long-term perspective (the Syrian conflict and ISIS factor will prevent it in the short to medium-term) because it is against the interests of the most important political actors, including the al-Assad regime, Russia, Iran and Iraq (the two latter states have Kurdish minorities; there is even the regional Kurdish government in northern Iraq), not to mentioned Turkey. It seems that also for the US (which takes the Turkish allies’ interests into consideration) and EU countries, the only acceptable option is a federal Syrian state with a Kurdish part. For Turkey, any kind of autonomy is against its interests. There is a fear that it can have a kind of spill-over effect which in the short-term perspective will intensify the Turkish Kurds’ aspirations for a kind of autonomy, and in the long-term can lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state consisted of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey (maybe also Iran). This last scenario cannot be excluded but it is not very probable.

If any kind of the political organism appears in Rojava, it is doubtful that it can be democratic and secular. Of course, some types of democratic mechanisms are possible (e.g. direct democracy institutions) but then the question is what model of democracy would appear. In my opinion it would be a mix of local traditions and the influence of Western modernity. The secular characteristics of this organism would be doubtful as well – why should it be the case? Kurds are quite often very religious, not to mention other ethnic groups who would inevitable be part of the society.

Concerning Russia, the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 was definitely not received positively by Turkey. There has long been animosity between the two nations, the possible spread of the Soviet Union was seen as pushing the more neutral Turkey towards the West, first with NATO membership and then later with aspirations of joining the EU. The downing of a Russian aircraft this past November has strained tensions between the two as never before in recent memory, as well as Russian intervention in Syria and now the build-up of Russian forces in neighbouring Armenia. Are proxy or hybrid conflicts between the two countries a real concern or is this in a sense political posturing?

We can observe the changing relations between Turkey and Russia after the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, on the one hand the economic relations, first of all in the energy sector, were developed (mainly new gas pipelines). Both states also had a similar attitude towards the Black Sea region, supporting a kind of status quo with a key role of these states and with a limited presence of NATO in the region. On the other hand, apart from the historically rooted suspicious attitude, there were many political problems – the Russian support for the PKK, the Turkish support for Chechens, and rivalry for influence in the former Soviet republics.

The situation changed at the beginning of the 21st century. The AKP government decided to pursue a more multidimensional foreign policy. It meant the development of relations with different partners and less dependence on the US. Because of this shift, changes in relations with Russia and its Middle Eastern neighbours were noticeable. A crisis in relations with the US after 2003 (the war in Iraq) and worsening relations with the EU since 2005 were favourable factors in this context. Turkey stopped supporting the Chechens and the Russians the PKK respectively. The economic relations in many fields were developed, with the key roles being in the construction and energy sectors (including new areas such as nuclear energy), and the same with regard to the social contacts (e.g. increasing number of Russian tourists in Turkey and a rise in mixed marriages).

The Crimean issue did not change much, contrary to the Syrian conflict. At the beginning, a difference of position of Turkey and Russia towards the future of Al-Assad was not a substantial problem. It started to be one after the shooting down of the Russian aircraft. There are many negative consequences for Turkey and its interests: economic sanctions in numerous fields including tourism, more problems related to travel to Russia due to the reintroduction of visas for Turkish citizens, limited capabilities for Turkey to operate in Syria (aircraft), the Russian support for Syrian Kurds, and a propaganda war at the cost of the Turkish image abroad.

However, it was something predictable. Russia could not react differently and the military solution was out of question due to the NATO membership of Turkey. It could be continued in the short to medium-term perspective. When it comes to the long-term forecast, of course, much depends on the future of Syria, but in my opinion the relations will gradually improve; probably not reaching the level from before the aircraft incident. We can observe already now some steps on the Russian side to justify this claim, with the end of the ban on airline flights to Antalya and allowing some Turkish tour operators to work in Russia again.

(Part 2 of the interview to be published soon)

Adam Szymański is the editor and author of Turkey and Europe: Challenges and Opportunities (PISM, 2013) and author of the Polish book Między islamem a kemalizmem. Problem demokracji w Tucji (Between Islam and Kemalism: The Problem of Democracy in Turkey, PISM, 2008). He is an associate professor with the Institute of Political Science at the University of Warsaw, and a TÜBITAK research fellow at Koç University in Istanbul (2012-2013).

Jim Blackburn is an editorial researcher at New Eastern Europe. He is also a writer, journalist, and book reviewer.


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings