Syrian refugees in Turkey living in fear amid Assad-Erdogan overtures

A man rides a motorcycle near a burning Turkish truck during protests against Turkey in al-Bab, in the northern Syrian opposition held region of Aleppo on July 1, 2024.
5 min read
11 July, 2024

An incident in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri last week sparked a wave of anti-Syrian attacks across Turkey, just as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's normalisation efforts with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reach a pivotal point.

The events were triggered by the arrest of a Syrian national accused of sexually assaulting a young Syrian girl in Kayseri, where social media footage captured scenes of motorcycles and cars being crushed by bulldozers and businesses set ablaze - all properties allegedly owned by Syrians.

Clashes with security forces ensued, and protesters were heard chanting for the resignation of Erdogan in a city known as a stronghold of the Turkish president's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Live Story

Violence spread to Gaziantep, Hatay, Konya, Bursa, and an Istanbul district, according to Turkey's intelligence agency, MIT, sowing fear among Syrian residents, many of whom barricaded themselves in their homes.

Later in the week, a 15-year-old Syrian boy was fatally stabbed in Antalya. By the end of the week, about 1,000 people had been detained across the country, including two dozen arrests.

After the war in Syria began in 2011, Turkey opened its doors to Syrians fleeing the violence and currently hosts more than 3.5 million refugees, although the actual number could be significantly higher.

But dire economic conditions - including a devaluation of the lira and steep inflation – have exacerbated anti-refugee rhetoric, including during election campaigns, turning public sentiment against them.

Hate speech against refugees has spread on social media, particularly after images began circulating of Syrians burning Turkish flags and attacking Turkish convoys in areas of northern Syria under Turkish control - making the timing of the incidents, which are not unprecedented in Turkey, significant.

Normalising Assad
Assad in the Arab League: What's the cost?
Rehabilitating Assad: The struggle for influence in Syria's endgame

“The events in northern Syria started actually before [the Kayseri incident], and the reason is the negotiation and the trade that began between Turkey and Assad's Syria, with the strong support of Russia,” Ahmet Ozturk, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at London Metropolitan University, told The New Arab, referring to the opening of the Abu Zendin border crossing northeast of Aleppo between opposition and regime-held areas the previous week.

As the unrest spread, further fuelled by events across the border, Turkey closed its main border crossings to the areas of Syria under its control. At least four people were killed in Afrin during a confrontation with Turkish troops.

Later in the week, a mass online leak of the personal data of Syrian refugees in Turkey sent further waves of fear and panic through the community.

Normalisation efforts amid regional developments

The protests in northern Syria and the violence against refugees in Turkey come amid statements from both Turkey and president Assad that appear to bring the two sides closer to reconciliation.

“I think the one thing that could give a great deal of impetus and, in a way, a sense of urgency to these normalisation talks would be the chances of an all-out conflict breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Mohammed Salih, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), told The New Arab.

“The kind of support that Assad has been receiving from Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups in the region, and Iran itself, would quite likely shrink, providing an opportunity for the Syrian opposition groups to make some move and revive the insurgency against the Assad regime,” he added.

Rehabilitating Assad: The struggle for influence in Syria's endgame
Turkey cut off diplomatic relations with Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and provided support to rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. [Getty]

Turkey cut off diplomatic relations with Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and provided support to rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Following a series of cross-border military operations, Turkey gained control of large swathes of northwest Syria, where it maintains a military presence.

Last year, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Syria met in Moscow with their counterparts from Russia and Iran, marking the highest-level contact between Ankara and Damascus since the Syrian war began.

Assad, who had previously demanded the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory as a condition for negotiations, has recently expressed openness to talks with Turkey without preconditions.

The overtures appeared to continue into the week of the unrest, as pro-government media in Turkey reported remarks from President Erdogan saying Turkey intends to “extend an invitation” to President Assad - whom the Turkish president had previously called a dictator.

"There is definitely a strong sense of betrayal on the part of Syrians that they have been used in regional geopolitical games and that some sort of moment of reckoning is approaching"

Turkey's outreach to Assad is a cause for concern among Syrians in the Turkish-controlled border areas, as well as in Turkey, where many are already living in constant fear of deportation amid an ongoing crackdown on what the government calls “illegal migration”. According to Erdogan, 670,000 people have returned to Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria.

“There is definitely a strong sense of betrayal on the part of Syrians that they have been used in regional geopolitical games and that some sort of moment of reckoning is approaching,” Salih said.

“On the Turkish side, the Turkish project in Syria failed a long time ago when the Syrian opposition forces were no longer able to topple the regime in Damascus with the entry of Russia into the Syrian conflict. And so now the two major things for Turkey are really the Kurds and the Syrian refugees,” he said, adding that reaching a deal with Damascus could help Turkey achieve some of those goals.

The protests in cities in northern Syria, including Afrin, Tel Abyad, and Azaz, reflect the deteriorating relationship between Erdogan and the opposition groups Turkey has been backing.

“What Turkey will try to do is convince the northern Syrian forces that Turkey's indirect support will continue,” says Ozturk. “But at the same time, Turkey is very keen to continue the rapprochement process with Assad.”

It remains to be seen what Turkey hopes to get out of any rapprochement on the Kurdish front -where Assad doesn't have much sway.

“Even if there was going to be a deal between Damascus and Ankara, the chances of implementing that deal in practice would not be very high,” Salih concludes.

Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration, and human trafficking has won awards and grants.

Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli