Syria: as the refugee crisis continues Turkey indicates that it might intervene in Syria

Around 8900. This is the current tally of Syrian nationals that have fled to neighbouring Turkey. And today it has been reported that around 10 000 more are held up in makeshift camps just across the border, on the Syrian side within the protective ‘umbrella’ of the Turkish armed forces. This refugee crisis has exposed the lies of the Syrian regime even to its most ardent supporters and has brought the previously excellent relationship between Turkey and Syria to a near breaking point. For what is happening in Syria – the crackdown by the regime on protesters, the promised reforms by Assad to his people and to Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan that never materialised, the defections from the Syrian army and the mounting indications that we are seeing the beginning of a Sunni – Alawi struggle has now, with the refugees, turned this into a national security issue second to none for Turkey.

Syrian state TV have today aired footage showing Syrian tanks moving in to two other cities along the Syrian – Turkish border.  Reports of more atrocities and refugees might follow.  In the area of Mardin in Turkey, another 10 000 tents have been erected to house Syrians who might flee the ongoing crackdown.

This will not go down well with Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. The meetings of the Syrian envoy assistant vice president (eh?) Hassan Turkmani, three hours with Erdoğan on Wednesday and four hours with Davutoğlu on Thursday, was described by SANA as “…transparent and frank as supposed to be between two countries linked by strategic relationship”. Transparent, frank – codewords that Turkmani likely got one hell of a scolding.

In a short TV interview on Thursday Turkmani claimed that the Syrians in Turkey would return home soon, and added that they had already begun returning. On SANA the claims are that everything has been restored in Jisr al-Shougur and that the Syrian Red Crescent are planning with the Turkish counterpart to return of all the Syrians. But this seems likely to be the usual propaganda concocted by the Syrian Ministry of Information. A pipedream.

Turkey has ratified the 1951 convention on the status of refugee, but did so with geographic limitation. The convention only applies to acts taking place in Europe. From a strict legal perspective a Syrian national cannot be granted refugee status in Turkey. On the other hand Turkey cannot forcibly remove the Syrian nationals without violating the non-refoulment doctrine that is a norm in customary international law. According to reports Syrians who fled to Turkey are unlikely to return unless the regime of Bashar al-Assad comes to and end in its current form. On top of that we have Erdoğan reaction to the crackdown and the pressure against the Syrian regime from people in Turkey.

But Turkey does not want these camps to become semi-permanent nor do they want more Syrians to flee to Turkey. What to do? Would resettlement by the UNHCR to a safe third country be a possibility? No. From a Turkish perspective such an operation would by itself create a pull factor, which would swell the ranks in the current camps. The same could be said for a solution that the Syrians in the camps would be granted residence and work permit in Turkey –  a pull factor that would result in a wave of Syrians crossing the border, to escape persecution from the Syrian regime as a well as seeking a better future for themselves and their children. It is therefore a probable outcome that the camps in Turkey will become a semi-permanent fixture á the Palestinian camps in Lebanon if the situation in Syria does not change radically in the near future. And this is what Turkey now is pressuring Syria to do – change radically. Or else.

According to Turkish daily Hürriyet Erdoğan and Davutoğlu is pushing hard for an immediate change in Syria. Foreign minister Davutoğlu is quoted saying “We want a strong Syria and want Syria to initiate a comprehensive reforms process to achieve this. In order to achieve this, violence must stop immediately.” In the article it was also mentioned that Turkey will deliver aid to the some 10 000 Syrians held on the Syrian side of the border. Yes – Turkey will go into Syria and deliver aid. From the article in Hürriyet it does not look like Erdoğan or Davutoğlu asked for Syrian permission, although SANA will probably tout it as a great cooperation between brotherly nations connected by history and deeply rooted between the peoples and officials. This is likely a Turkish warning shot.

In Hürriyet, in an op-ed, this is expanded. Turkey is mulling a humanitarian intervention in Syria. This in response to the possibility that the protests in Syria will escalate with a widening crack between Sunni and Alawi, between poor and middle/upper class, between countryside and big city and gain traction in Damascus and Aleppo with heavy crackdowns from the Syrian regime as a response. Such a humanitarian intervention would be to create safe zones for Syrian in Syria so that they would not need to flee to Turkey. This information in Hürriyet could be seen first and foremost as a leak by the Turkish regime on what was discussed with/threats to Turkmani. The gloves are off, just as Erdoğan promised.

But in the op-ed it is also mentioned that their is an escalation as well on the Syrian side with accusations in Syrian media that weapons have been smuggled from Turkey to the ‘armed gangs’, that the Turkish regime is behind the smuggling and that the meeting in Antalya by the different Syrian opposition groups was endorsed or even backed by the Turkish regime.

This warning shot and the op-ed in Hürriyet points to two possibilities. Either the Syrian regime will back down, immediately stop the violence and enacted real reforms. This will likely spell the end of the house of Assad in the long run. As the regime will try to enact reforms protests will eat away at the regimes support. Without violence and torture those in opposition but fearful for their saftey will also make their voices heard. With real democratic reforms the ba’ath party will loose its monopoly and in the end Assad will be voted out of the presidential palace.

Or the Syrian regime will smile and nod and ignore Erdoğan and Davutoğlu just as they have up until now, calling what they see as a bluff or even conduct their own operations with forced displacement of kurds to Turkey or a restart of support of the PKK. The problem is that Erdoğan is not someone who likes to be made a fool and the public in Turkey are no longer friendly to the Syrian regime. Such a move could spell the end of the house of Assad quite soon as excellent relations might fall apart and end with open hostilities between Turkey and Syria.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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