Since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis back in 2011, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the large-scale displacement of refugees to advance his own political ambitions, both regionally and beyond. He frequently threatened to send many of them to Europe, pressuring the EU into softening its criticism of Turkey’s disputes with Cyprus or Syria. Erdogan also used the issue of refugees to market himself as a protector of Muslims worldwide. Now, the president is promising to send one million out of the approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees back to a Turkish-controlled enclave in their war-torn country, in what seems to be early campaigning ahead of Turkey’s next presidential election, scheduled for June 2023. Erdogan was elected president in 2014, after serving as prime minister since 2003, and survived an attempted coup in 2016.
Many Turks are seemingly no longer as enthusiastic as they used to be about their Syrian guests.
Although originally welcoming them with open-arms, many Turks are seemingly no longer as enthusiastic as they used to be about their Syrian guests. Turkey is going through a deep economic crisis, resulting in the Turkish lira losing 45 percent of its value against the US dollar last year. In 2014, Syrian refugees cost the Turkish government $4.5 billion USD. At the time, there were approximately 1.6 million Syrian immigrants in the country. More recently, in 2019, Erdogan said that refugees were costing his government no less than $37 billion USD. Continuing to provide homes, schools, and basic services for millions of displaced individuals is no easy task –– but neither is living in a country that doesn’t want you. Over the past four years, refugees have been subjected to violence, hate speech, and persecution, making many feel unwelcome. Last February, a poll showed that 66 percent of Turkish respondents wanted refugees to return to their country, but most Syrians living in Turkey don’t want to leave. According to a 2020 UN survey, 77.8 percent of them do not want to return to Syria. Ninety percent of Turks polled feel that at least half of the Syrians based in Turkey are here to stay.
Turkey’s Upcoming Presidential Elections
Opposition parties are using the refugee card to pressure Erdogan ahead of the June 2023 elections. Chairman of the Republican People’s Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu said that if he comes to power, he would return Syrian refugees to their countries “within two years.” He is billed to be Erdogan’s main challenger. In 2018, Meral Aksener of the Good Party also said that when she came to power, she would reconcile with Syria, visit Damascus, and make sure that Syrian refugees are returned to their country. Similar views have been expressed by the Democracy and Progress Party, the Victory Party, and the Felicity Party, all opposing Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). As the refugee crisis is playing a leading role in early campaigning, Erdogan gave a televised speech on May 9, assuring Syrians that the plan to relocate one million of them was entirely voluntary: “We will never expel them from this land.”
Opposition parties are using the refugee card to pressure Erdogan ahead of the June 2023 elections.
An Old Idea Revisited
This is not the first time that Erdogan has toyed with the idea of repatriating Syrian refugees. Three years ago, he mentioned his plan at the UN General Assembly, saying that he hoped to relocate 3 million Syrian refugees to northern Syria. But the plan required many components, including money, international support, and a safe-zone, none of which seemed forthcoming. Erdogan then suggested that one million refugees be returned to ten towns and 140 villages across a border stretch east of the Euphrates River inside Syria. That plan, had it materialized, would have cost $26 billion USD.
Today’s plan is far more reasonable, targeting Turkish cities with a high concentration of Syrian refugees, namely Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, and Gaziantep. Syrians living there will be invited to return to a cluster of Syrian cities that have been under Turkish control since 2016-2018, including Jarablus, Azaz, al-Bab, and Afrin. They will receive cinder block homes donated by Turkish NGOs, and return to areas that enjoy proper electricity, clean water, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Those cities were occupied by Turkish proxies during the course of the war, and now boast Turkish educational curriculums and use Turkish electricity and currency.
The plan comes amidst an international crisis triggered by the Ukraine war, where few world leaders are paying any attention to Syria. In order for Erdogan’s scheme to succeed, however, he would need to coordinate with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Since the Russian army rumbled into Syria in September 2015, the two leaders have gotten along well, meeting at a handful of one-on-one summits that resulted in territorial swaps and joint patrols within the Syrian patchwork. Bilateral relations are at an all-time low, however, due to Erdogan’s closure of Turkish airspace to Russian warplanes and providing drones to Ukraine. The fact that Erdogan has welcomed over 50,000 Ukrainian refugees since February only complicates matters regarding Syria. It is highly unlikely that Putin will accommodate him on Syria, at least for now, as the war in Ukraine drags on. Already in mid-May, Russian warplanes have been striking towns and villages occupied by Turkish proxies in Syria, hoping that this will get Erdogan to re-consider his positions on Ukraine.
Erdogan has welcomed over 50,000 Ukrainian refugees since February.
And the US is not ready to accommodate Erdogan on Syria either. This week, Erdogan slammed the Biden Administration’s announcement that it would waive sanctions on Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria, which pose a direct threat to Turkey. Presidents Biden and Putin might now be at daggers-end on Ukraine, but still have one thing in common –– obstructing Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria.
Biden would reject the resettlement of Syrian refugees if it threatens the US’s Kurdish allies, while Putin would refuse it in order to challenge Erdogan’s territorial ambitions in Syria –– and get him to change course on Ukraine.