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Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Speech / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. Our Director of Communications & Outreach Hugh Pope looks back on two decades of change in a keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What Went Right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s.
  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama's demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

Muhamed (L), a Syrian refugee boy, and his older brother Mustafa (R) work at a small textile factory in Istanbul, Turkey, on 24 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”

Sultangazi is home to a mix of religious and ethnic groups – as well as 50,000 Syrian refugees. The district received the refugees warmly. But resentment is rising, as public services suffer and opposition forces suspect the ruling party of using refugees to exacerbate social divisions.

Sultangazi is an inner-city district of Istanbul located on the European side of the Bosphorus, home to more than a half-million Turkish citizens and 50,000 Syrians. What’s happening there reflects nationwide patterns of refugee integration and assimilation – but also growing impatience among the native population.

The district is a microcosm of Turkish society in terms of faith, ethnicity and political persuasion. Pious Sunni conservatives live next door to left-leaning Alevis; Turkish ultra-nationalists rub shoulders with Kurdish movement sympathisers. There are no formal records of religious affiliation, but locals estimate that 30-40 per cent of Sultangazi’s residents are Alevi and the rest Sunni. Alevis, Turkey’s second-largest faith community, profess a variant of Shia Islam (as do the Alawites of Syria, from whom the Alevis are distinct in historical evolution, culture and religious practice). Around half the population are Kurds – of whom slightly over half are social conservatives who vote for the Sunni Islamist formation ruling Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The rest largely support the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The Syrians who have settled in Sultangazi are mostly Sunni Arabs from rural areas around Aleppo. In addition to the 40,000 who are registered refugees, an estimated 10,000 Syrians are unregistered. There are also approximately 8,000 migrants of other nationalities, mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Azerbaijanis.

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul's "District of Victimhood"

Crisis Group’s Turkey Project Director Nigar Goksel talks about identity politics and growing frictions in the job market between Syrian refugees and host communities in the refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Turkey’s major western cities. CRISISGROUP
The Syrians’ socio-economic impact [in Turkey] is becoming increasingly manifest.

In conversations with Crisis Group, residents referred to their quarter as “a district of victimhood” because it brings together so many different people – citizens and non-citizens – who have had to leave their hometowns behind for political or economic reasons. There has been a particularly large influx of Syrians over the past two years, as the Assad regime recaptured parts of northern Syria that had been held by rebels, and as more Syrians moved from border provinces to western cities in search of job opportunities. Sultangazi today ranks among the top five of Istanbul’s 39 districts in the number of Syrians hosted; they now comprise over 8 per cent of its total population.

Many Syrians received a warm welcome in Turkey. But, as their numbers grow in districts such as Sultangazi, some fear that the new arrivals will redraw the demographic map to the detriment of long-time residents. Secularists and leftists, in particular, see the Syrians as pawns in a move by the AK Party government to dilute the concentration – and perhaps, down the road, the electoral strength – of minority constituencies. Such perceptions deepen existing social and political divides (covered in a November 2016 Crisis Group report).

The Syrians’ socio-economic impact is also becoming increasingly manifest. Public services such as health and education, already strained by the district’s rapid expansion, have been further overstretched by the refugee influx. Locals complain about long lines at hospitals, crowded classrooms, skyrocketing rents, packed busses and piled-up trash. The sense that the Syrian influx has worsened the quality of life is sowing resentment among hosts, irrespective of political affiliation. Compassion and solidarity are curdling into hostility.

Crisis Group Turkey Project Director Nigar Göksel talking to a Turkish restaurant owner about the impact of unregistered Syrian businesses in Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

As underlined by Crisis Group’s 29 January report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, the risk of violent clashes between hosts and refugees is higher in places where the stress on public services overlaps with labour market competition and identity-related demographic concerns. Sultangazi is such a place.

The Gazi Hot Spot

The tract of land now known as Sultangazi has witnessed waves of migration, starting in the mid-1970s when people came from across Anatolia. In the 1990s, a large number of Kurds arrived after being forcibly displaced from villages in the south east at the peak of the army’s fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2004 or so, the district has also attracted refugees and migrant workers from countries to Turkey’s east. With plenty of affordable housing and low-skilled job opportunities in textile workshops, Sultangazi has continued to boom, absorbing around 100,000 Turkish citizens in the past decade.

On aggregate, voting patterns in the quarter reflect strong support for the AK Party government, albeit with staunch opposition in certain neighbourhoods. In the November 2015 general elections, the AK Party received 163,000 votes (60.6 per cent), while the main centre-left, secular opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), garnered 60,000 and the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP got 40,000. Over 60 per cent of voters said “yes” to the April 2017 plebiscite asking citizens to approve measures that greatly strengthened the powers of the president. The Istanbul average “yes” vote was 48.6 per cent. Despite this higher overall support, some neighbourhoods firmly rejected the referendum (see map below for a detailed breakdown).

One of them was Gazi, where a majority of residents are left-wing Alevis, either Kurdish or Turkish in ethnicity. A full 78.9 per cent of its voters said “no” to the stronger presidency. Similarly, the AK Party won only 19 per cent of the neighbourhood’s vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, while the CHP received 54 per cent and the HDP 23.8 per cent.

A map that shows the 2017 Constitutional Referendum results in the districts of Sultangazi, Istanbul. CRISISGROUP/MIke Shand

Gazi is legendary in Turkey for antipathy to the state. Left-wing and/or Alevi youth there clashed frequently with the nationalist police in the 1990s. On 12 March 1995, the unrest culminated in what is commonly referred to as “the Gazi incidents”. Unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one person and wounding numerous others. Residents saw the police response as markedly slow; riots broke out and spread to other neighbourhoods, continuing for about a week. The police reaction to the rioters was swift and harsh, with officers shooting into crowds, killing fifteen people. Many believe the incident was instigated by the “deep state” – ultra-nationalists and their allies in the security forces – to discourage the growth of Alevi and Kurdish dissent in big cities.

Anger spiralled into confrontations with police again during the Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. Some 2-3,000 neighbourhood residents took to the streets for around one week in anti-government protests. Tensions also rose in Gazi on the night of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, when pro-AK Party crowds reportedly marched into the neighbourhood chanting “Allahu Ekber” (God is great). Pro-government demonstrators had been summoned into the streets across Istanbul by state-employed imams using the loudspeakers of mosques. Rumours spread that the demonstrators were planning to attack Alevis, and residents gathered in front of the local cemevi (Alevi house of worship). Police dispersed the pro-AK Party crowd before it reached the area.

Many leftists took this series of events as validation of their view that, under AK Party rule, the invocation of Sunni Muslim solidarity is “party politics”, geared toward mobilising the right-wing, conservative-leaning majority of the electorate. They point to statements they perceive as sectarian by AK Party leaders to back up this interpretation.

Blame Game

Across the Sultangazi district, representatives of the Alevi community and the Kurdish movement view the Syrian refugees’ presence largely through the prism of their own accumulated grievances against the state.

The risk of violent attacks on refugees may increase amid the building anger among Kurdish movement sympathisers at the crackdown on the HDP underway since early 2016. Thousands of the HDP’s members and nine of its 53 MPs – including party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş – were arrested and remain in prison. Another 30 MPs were detained and/or arrested and released since November. “We have no rights. There is police impunity for any action against the Kurdish youth here”, a Kurdish movement figure in Sultangazi told Crisis Group. “This is all building up a frustration [that] can be channelled against the Syrians, many of whom announce Erdoğan as their saviour”.

Alevis also feel worn down by longstanding state discrimination. “We still do not have equal citizenship”, said one representative. “We have so many complaints about our situation that it is hard for us to talk about Syrians …. In a place like the Gazi neighbourhood that locals say is over 50 per cent Alevi, there is a threat perception from the past anyway, and now they think Syrians will be settled here to reduce the Alevis to a minority”.

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries [in Sultangazi], leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

The government and its supporters accuse Alevi organisations of being sectarian when they reach out to the minority of Syrian refugees who are Kurds or Alawites. A Kurdish movement representative claimed that the authorities warned Syrian Kurds not to establish relations with Kurdish organisations in Turkey: “Syrian Kurds who came to Sultangazi were told they would be provided all health and education services if they abide by this rule. So, out of fear of being sent back to Syria by Turkish authorities, they have stayed low-profile about their Kurdish identity”.

Kurdish and Alevi oppositionists insist they are not concerned solely with their co-ethnics and/or co-religionists. One Alevi representative said: “At first, we tried to provide support to all the Syrians who came here, regardless of sect or ethnicity. However, when the numbers soared, and since we get no resources from the state, we had to cut down. Since we observed the Syrian Alawites were not so comfortable going to the centres of the Sunni Muslim charities, we concentrated our efforts on them”.

Arabic signs on a shop offer for sale sporting clothes, wedding dresses, pyjamas and lingerie, Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

People at the Gazi cemevi told Crisis Group they held the potential to help break down sectarian stereotypes, but they lacked the resources: “We provided Turkish language courses for Syrian children and women, and 30 per cent of those who attended were Sunni. It overcame prejudice, but then we didn’t have enough funds to continue”.

Another employee of a mainstream NGO who has been working with Syrians for a few years said that, just as the authorities try to impose an artificial homogeneity of identity and thought on Turkish citizens, they want Syrians to be homogeneous, too. “The government thinks that Syrians in Turkey who have any thoughts beyond support for the Free Syrian Army [a Sunni rebel group fighting alongside the Turkish military in northern Syria] should be invisible”, the NGO worker said.

Widening Local Divides

The Syrian refugee crisis has thus widened the gap between the government’s backers and its critics. The authorities, along with Sunni Muslim charities, blame the negative attitude of hardline Alevi and Kurdish organisations. A local state official who also works for a large Islamist charity, suggested: “Considering they [the Kurds] have also experienced displacement, one would expect them to be more compassionate. However, perhaps because they see the refugees’ presence as being against their interests, I observe that the Kurds speak out less compassionately about the refugees”.

Sign in Arabic on a tree advertises that the Abu Salah Supermarket in Sultangazi district can supply money transfers in all currencies, accommodation for male youths, espresso coffee and all kinds of Syrian goods, September 2017. CRISISGROUP.

Meanwhile, Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin in Sultangazi told Crisis Group they find it unjust that public institutions employ translators for Arabic-speaking Syrians. “There are signs in both Turkish and Arabic in rooms in some hospitals, whereas the Kurdish language has never been tolerated, let alone catered to in such a way”. They point out that many Syrian Kurdish refugees are not fluent in Arabic; hence, translation of signs into Kurdish would merely be an extension of the refugee integration policy. The authorities are trying as well to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools, even as the Kurds’ decades-old demands for Kurdish-language education remain unaddressed. Liberal intellectuals privately advocate reforms that would enable service provision in languages other than Turkish in places where demand exists. But open discussion of such options cannot occur at the peak of Turkish nationalist fervour in the country today.

Divergent Perceptions

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries, leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

One such incident took place in the İsmetpaşa neighbourhood of Sultangazi on 15 May 2017. A young Kurdish man was killed in a fight with an Afghan, supposedly over who could sit where in a park. Local authorities told Crisis Group that sinister outside agitators, probably members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), were planning to use this incident as an opportunity to organise an anti-government protest at the scene of the murder, by claiming the state does not protect its Kurdish citizens. The authorities say they reached out to residents to dissuade them from joining, and that police evacuated 500-600 Afghans and Pakistanis to protect them from reprisal.

The Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition.

Reflecting a common view among authorities, a deputy mayor in Sultangazi said the far-left elements living in Sultangazi systematically try to sabotage the state’s effectiveness and to rally opposition: “It is no coincidence that there were protests every day in the Gazi neighbourhood before the coup attempt, and then it stopped suddenly afterward. There was an effort to mobilise people for further destabilisation”.

Kurdish/Alevi community representatives, on the other hand, claim the authorities systematically try to provoke Kurdish opposition, in order to create excuses for crackdowns. A local HDP representative said: “This is part of the systematic effort to stir up unrest. Police bully our young men daily. The swarms of Turkish flags in our streets and the playing of janissary [Ottoman soldier] anthems are all meant to provoke our youth. There is police impunity. A young boy was killed by police the other day; they said he disobeyed a stop warning. Who knows? It can’t be proven one way or another”. They also argue that the government is trying to create circumstances that will lead ordinary residents who support opposition parties to move out of Sultangazi, which is becoming lucrative real estate, thanks to its increasingly central location as mega-projects like the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus proceed.

Coming to Terms with Pluralism

At present, the Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition. But the Syrian influx also has the potential to trigger constructive debates about how to address the demands of the country’s diverse communities, be they tied together by mother tongue, ethnicity or sect.

As long as certain groups feel marginalised by the ruling party, they will be embittered by the integration of Syrians, and social cohesion will be harder to come by. As such, what works in one setting may well backfire in another. In the conservative border province of Şanlıurfa, for example, no one objects to appeals for unity with Syrian refugees on religious grounds. But districts with heterogeneous demographics, such as Sultangazi, need to be approached with more sensitivity to the perception that the government is promoting Sunni solidarity at the expense of minorities.

Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist aid organisation headquartered in Taiwan, has helped fill the gap in aid and service provision to Syrians in Sultangazi, September 2017. Tzu Chi NGO

Government efforts to meet the needs of host communities and Syrians will be more effective and better perceived if the state also reaches out to constituencies who sympathise with opposition parties. Inviting the representatives of NGOs and political parties that are not aligned with the government to refugee-related coordination meetings at the district level in itself would send a message of inclusivity. It would also serve to generate creative ideas about how to bridge divides in localities that are politically divided.

Opposition parties also have a role to play: they need to be careful not to spread misinformation or exploit the growing angst about Syrians among their constituents. Instead, they should work constructively to bridge the divide. Local actors of all political persuasions need to open channels of dialogue, share information and pool capacities to address local grievances and stop trouble before it starts.


Project Director, Turkey
Analyst, Turkey