Impunity, atmosphere of hate in Turkey perpetuate anti-Syrian violence: experts

A Syrian boy walks past a graffiti in the northern city of Azaz in the rebel-held region of Aleppo province, near the border with Turkey, on October 16, 2018. (Photo by Nazeer AL-KHATIB / AFP)

A series of violent attacks on Syrian refugees in Turkey has experts and activists pointing to a pervasive social climate of hatred and impunity as the driving factors, Turkish Minute reported.

Experts cite an orchestrated atmosphere of hostility, exacerbated by government neglect and socio-economic exploitation.

The latest violence erupted on Sunday in Kayseri after allegations that a Syrian man had abused a child. Enraged locals set fire to homes, businesses and vehicles owned by Syrians and physically assaulted members of the refugee community.

In response to this wave of violence, protests broke out in Syria’s northwestern regions controlled by Turkey on Monday. Clashes between armed demonstrators and Turkish forces in Syria’s Afrin district resulted in seven deaths and over 20 injuries, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Protesters attacked Turkish trucks and pulled down Turkish flags.

Footage of Syrians tearing up the Turkish flag fueled the unrest, which spread to other cities, resulting in the death of 17-year-old Syrian Ahmet Handan El Naif in Antalya. The Interior Ministry reported 474 people were detained in connection with these attacks, 285 of whom had previous criminal records.

In response to the protests in Syria, Turkey on Tuesday closed its main border crossings into northwest Syria, including the key Bab al Hawa and Bab al Salam gates, Reuters reported. This move has further isolated Syrian refugees and exacerbated tensions on both sides of the border.

İsmail Çapar from the İzmir Refugee Solidarity Platform told the Mezopotamya news agency that hostility towards refugees is rising in Turkey. “In a country where both the government and the opposition are hostile towards refugees, it is unlikely that such attacks will not occur,” he said. Çapar said a single incident involving a Syrian can lead to widespread violence against the entire community.

Çapar suggested that the simultaneous nature of the attacks indicates an organized effort. “There is another motivation accompanying these lynching attempts, which is looting,” Mezopotamya quoted Çapar as saying, citing historic incidents such as the 1915 attacks on Armenians, the pogroms against Jews in the ’30s and the attacks on İstanbul’s Greeks in the ’50s. Çapar referenced recent incidents in which police directed crowds during mob attacks on Syrians, suggesting these actions were not spontaneous.

Çapar is not alone in his argument. Erhan Keleşoğlu, a political scientist specializing in the Middle East, told Voice of America’s Turkish edition that recent developments over the past two days cannot be fully explained as mere reactions from ordinary citizens.

“The interior minister’s statements about criminal elements acting in a coordinated manner are indicative of past instances where such networks have been known to operate. It’s noteworthy that these incidents coincided with the eve and night of the Sinan Ateş trial. Groups attempting to incite street chaos rarely organize themselves spontaneously without encouragement. When all elements comprising the state are united, there’s complete calm in the country,” he told VoA.

On July 1 an Ankara court began the trial of 22 suspects for the 2022 murder of Sinan Ateş, an academic and former leader of the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary wing of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The trial, closely watched due to the suspects’ political affiliations and MHP executives being possible culprits, saw attendance from various opposition leaders and bar association presidents. Ayşe Ateş, the widow of the victim, attended the hearing in a bulletproof vest after having received threats. The defendants, including the alleged shooter and instigator, claimed they only intended to scare Ateş, not kill him. The indictment was criticized for failing to address the masterminds and the motives behind the assassination.

Keleşoğlu implies that a possible rift between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ally, the MHP, may have led to the recent outbreak of violence as MHP members might have had something to gain from the unrest.

The timing and nature of the recent violence against Syrians raise questions about whether these events are part of a broader, orchestrated effort by MHP circles.

Exploitation of refugees as cheap labor

Speaking to Mezopotamya, Çapar criticized what he labeled as the socio-economic exploitation of refugees. “There is unemployment, and they say ‘[It is because] refugees work cheaply.’ It’s as if refugees prefer to do so,” he said. He argued that refugees’ rights are not recognized and that they are used as bargaining chips with Europe by the Turkish government. Çapar called for equal living conditions and recognition of refugees’ rights to eliminate negative perceptions.

Speaking to the Artı Gerçek news website, writer Ercüment Akdeniz warned that Turkey is on the brink of a new wave of mob attacks against Syrians. He attributed this to deliberate stoking of anti-refugee sentiment by political actors and media outlets. Akdeniz said hate crimes often go unpunished, creating a sense of impunity that fuels further violence. He highlighted the exploitation of Syrian workers by employers who pit local and immigrant workers against each other.

Lack of policy

Çapar criticized the Turkish government for lacking a coherent refugee policy and accused it of using refugees as a political tool rather than integrating them into society or finding sustainable solutions. “Turkey is obliged to protect refugees, but it has no policy to integrate these people into society,” he told Mezopotamya.

Çapar also called for an end to Turkey’s occupation of Syrian territory.

Under President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Ankara has become more aggressive and active in conflicts in the region, supporting proxies.

Turkey and its proxies have seized control of territory inside Syria in several military operations launched since 2016 against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish militia.

The path forward

Çapar and Akdeniz argue that the solution lies in recognizing refugees’ rights and ensuring equal living conditions. They call for an end to the exploitation of refugees as cheap labor and a concerted effort to address the underlying socio-economic issues.

The Turkish government faces significant challenges in managing the violence and addressing the underlying issues driving anti-refugee sentiment.

In a speech on Tuesday Erdoğan blamed groups linked to terrorist organizations for the “chaos plan” and promised to expose the “dirty hands” behind the recent incidents.

“Neither we nor our Syrian brothers will fall into this insidious trap … we will not give in to racist vandalism,” Erdoğan said after a cabinet meeting.

Erdoğan claimed that more than 670,000 people have returned to areas in northern Syria where Turkey has created “safe zones” over the past decade.

He added that the refugee issue would be resolved humanely and morally in line with the economic realities of Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees.

Erdoğan said last Friday that a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was possible to restore bilateral relations. Turkey had severed ties with Syria after the Syrian civil war in 2011 and supported the rebels who wanted to topple Assad.

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