The impact of Syrian refugees on Turkey and Jordan

My latest article, appearing in The World Today, October 2012

Syria’s refugee crisis is getting worse – for those who flee and for those who take them in. Christopher Phillips reports

As Syria’s uprising descends into a increasingly bloody civil war, the number of refugees fleeing the fighting has rocketed. In August alone 100,000 Syrians headed for the relative safety of neighbouring states, almost doubling the number seeking refuge since the unrest began to 235,000, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Unregistered refugees mean the numbers are far higher.

Though they might have escaped the civil war, when they cross the border refugees face a host of new challenges. Syria’s Arab neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – are poorly equipped to handle the crisis and most refugees find themselves in hastily put together camps, or with families struggling to support themselves. Even Turkey, wealthier and better equipped than most, has struggled. Resources, shelter and work are all scarce for the refugees, and the international community has been slow to respond.

Yet the rapidly expanding crisis poses problems not only for refugees. The host states themselves are wary of the social, economic and political pressures their new guests have brought. Here we look at the effects on Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan under strain

Jordan has taken in Syrian refugees since the beginning of the uprising. Deraa, where protesters first clashed with the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, is barely 6 kilometres from the border and shares familial and tribal links with the neighbouring Jordanian Houran region.

The first refugees were mostly people from Deraa seeking refuge with extended family, but as the violence spread Syrians from further afield – Damascus, Homs and Hama – headed south. Most arrive with shocking stories of Assad’s brutality. Ahmed, a farmer from the Deraa coun-tryside, speaks of his reluctance to leave Syria. ‘They killed my son,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t involved in any demonstrations, just working the fields, when a sniper shot him in the head. Even then, though, I didn’t want to leave. But then we heard stories of Assad’s men, the shabbiha, raping women in Deraa, systematically using sexual violence as a weapon. I was scared for my daughters so we fled.’ Crossing the border is no easy task. The Jordanian army has clashed with Syrian troops to prevent them firing on fleeing refugees. ‘We hid in the forests for three months, preparing to cross,’ said Ahmed. ‘We managed to avoid any Syrian troops, and climbed over the border at night. Then we were stopped by a Jordanian soldier and I was scared he might send us back as we had no papers. He just said ‘alf ahla’ [a thousand welcomes]. I wept.’

Ahmed, his wife and their five children are being looked after by a charity in a private home in Turah, a few miles outside Ramtha in the Houran. While wealthier refugees find their own accommodation, these officially sanctioned charities have been essential over the past year in finding homes for poorer Syrians, given Jordan’s reluctance to build refugee camps. But things are rapidly changing with refugee numbers mushrooming this summer to more than 180,000, according to the Jordanian government. It opened a camp in Zaatari in late July 2012, and a new law declared that any future Syrian refugees would have to live in organized camps. Conditions in this tent city are grim. Located on windswept barren land, where temperatures have regularly been above 40C, Zaatari witnessed a riot by refugees complaining about living conditions within weeks of opening. By then, the camp’s population was already 25,000, forcing Jordan to plan new camps.

Jordan is struggling to cope. Already a poor country relying heavily on money from the US and the Gulf to balance its budget, Jordan is worried about the economic impact of the refugee crisis. In August, together with the UNHCR, it made an urgent appeal for $429 million, revising this to $700 million within a week. While the US pledged $100 million, the international community as a whole has been slow to react.

Many refugees, fearing the reach of Syria’s intelligence service even in exile, choose not to register for a camp and live outside, adding to Jordan’s financial burden. One such refugee from Homs, Mustafa, spoke of the medical treatment he was receiving. ‘My eardrums were blown out when a government shell exploded next to my furniture shop,’ he said, ‘Thankfully the [Jordanian] government paid for the hospital.’ His six-year-old son, was attending a course over the summer to catch up on missed school work. While this was paid for by the UNHCR, he will now join a Jordanian school that already packs more than 40 children into each class. Mustafa himself said he will look for casual work, but with unemployment in Jordan at 14 per cent, the economy cannot absorb him or the many more like him.

So far Jordanians remain sympathetic to their Syrian guests. But there are worries that economic problems could mutate into political tension. Competition for resources such as jobs, education and health services may test the Jordanians’ hospitality, especially if refugee numbers continue to grow. Memories of the 1970 Black September civil war between militia drawn from Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian government will also make author-ities wary of any political activity among Syrian refugees. Already the government have reportedly denied entry to Syrians of Palestinian origin, fearing it may upset Jordan’s delicate political balance, although the government has denied this. Any link between Syrian refugees and Islamists will similarly worry Amman. The potential for the destabilization of Jordan grows with every refugee crossing its border.

Spillover in Turkey

Turkey’s response to the Syria crisis has been better organized than Jordan’s, being wealthier and better placed to cope with the 80,000 refugees that had arrived by late August. As in Jordan, Syrians are allowed to rent private accommodation, though they are denied the right to work. As most are from poor backgrounds, they live in official camps, unlike the dispersed refugees in Jordan. Turkey sought to control the situation early on, building four refugee camps in Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis and Urfa. Until now, Turkey has largely been able to fund its response to the crisis itself; with the government controlled Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD disaster agency taking the lead rather than UNHCR. Foreign journalists are barred from entering the camps, although independent observers from Turkish charities attest to the good conditions inside.

Some refugees, who are free to travel around Turkey and speak to foreigners outside the camps, are more ambivalent about camp life. ‘It is our prison!’ says Mohammad, a teenager from Aleppo outside Kilis camp, ‘The guards treat us badly and life is too expensive.’ The Turkish government gives each refugee 20 Turkish Lira (£7) a week but, says Mohammad, this is barely enough for food. A few of the younger refugees risk their lives crossing back into Syria to buy subsidized cigarettes to sell in Turkey, but most are unemployed. As in Jordan, these frustrations have led to rioting. Kilis camp residents spoke of a demonstration in late July when they demanded better conditions, prompting the Turkish guards to fire tear gas at the crowd. ‘Women and children were hurt and fell down,’ explains Nawar, another Kilis resident. ‘There may be some bad people in this camp, but they have been oppressed [in Syria] for a long time. They are desperate and need money and food. I think they just reached breaking point.’

Kilis is the only camp with solid container homes, the rest being tented cities. Older heads complain of youthful ingratitude. ‘This is by far the best camp in Turkey, the rioters are just trouble-makers,’ says Karim, a middle-aged teacher from Hama. ‘I was first in Urfa camp but it was far too hot, which was unhealthy for my baby daughter. My wife and I crossed back into Syria, risking attacks from the regime army, just to get to Kilis and have a container home.’

While Turkey has avoided the economic difficulties faced by Jordan, social and political costs are emerging. Worryingly, Syria’s sectarian problems could be exported. In Syria members of Assad’s Alawis sect, who have backed the president, are blamed by many from the Sunni Muslim majority for the regime’s violence. However, Antakya, the Turkish city in Hatay where many Syrian refugees have fled, is dominated by Turkish Alawis who are sympathetic to Assad and their co-religionists in Syria. There is little sympathy for the refugees.

‘They are all terrorists,’ said Mehmet, an Alawi businessman, ‘we hate them.’ Like many in the city, he equates all the refugees with the armed rebels given sanctuary by the Turkish government to fight Assad. Such rebels, many of whom are Islamist, have caused fear in this secular city. ‘They walk around with their long beards looking like al-Qaeda,’ said Olgun, an Alawi doctor, ‘I’ve heard they have told some Turkish Alawis, ‘after Bashar, you’re next!’’

Many Antakyan Sunnis agree that the refugees could destabilise the city. ‘Antakya has always been safe for all sects: Alawis, Christians, Sunnis,’ explains Ahmet, a Sunni business student, ‘Now I hear people are buying guns to protect themselves. This used to be unheard of.’

Despite Antakyans’ complaints, there are signs that the Turkish government is responding, trying in late August to move refugees out of Hatay. Similarly, new camps are being built further away from the border. Yet this may not undo the damage done, or ensure that Turkey’s different ethnic groups stay above the unfolding civil war in Syria. Already the dynamics of Kurdish politics in Turkey have been affected, with the secessionist Kurdish militants the PKK emboldened both by renewed support from Assad’s government and by recent gains by Syria’s Kurds.

The Syrian crisis is hurting Turkey far more than expected and, as more refugees flood over the border, new solutions are being sought to take the pressure off Turkey’s resources and calm its own population.

One option discussed by Ankara is to establish a safe zone inside Syria itself to house the refugees. This, however, would effectively require Turkey and Assad to go to war, a decision that will not be taken lightly.

The surge of refugees fleeing Syria’s violence seems to have caught the Jordanian, Turkish and other neighbouring governments by surprise. In many ways it says a lot for the determination of the Syrian people that they, like Ahmed from Deraa, resisted fleeing for so long. At the same time, the sudden surge seen in the summer suggests a major increase in violence and a loss of hope that the war will be over soon.

Their flight should not surprise us, however. Syria is in civil war and, as seen in Iraq and Lebanon in the 2000s and 1970s and 80s, that creates refugees. What is important now is that the refugee crisis does not become too great a burden on the host states, already under strain.

Recent Jordanian, Pakistani and Rwandan history shows us the dangers for host societies of a highly politicized and desperate refugee community if handled badly. While the international community have been unable to prevent Assad’s brutality, they can cushion the fallout for the hosts and improve the lot of Syria’s refugees soon to face a long winter in tent cities.

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Turkey’s Syria Problem

By Christopher Phillips for Juncture and Open Democracy

Turkey’s cooperation with the Gulf states, reportedly establishing a secret shared command centre in southern Turkey to coordinate rebel attacks, may be designed to contain the influence of others and control which groups get arms. But Turkey’s recent regional resurgence in the Middle East is at risk of drowning in the Syrian quagmire.

The Arab spring should have been good for Turkey. Over the past decade, Ankara has built stronger commercial, political and cultural ties with the Arab world than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is widely popular on Arab streets. Indeed, in the wake of regime change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, many spoke of emulating the‘Turkish model’ pioneered by Erdoğan’s moderately Islamist AKP party.

However, as spring has turned to autumn, whatever hopes Ankara may have had that like-minded democratic Islamist governments would emerge peacefully across the Arab world have slowly been dashed. Right on Turkey’s doorstep, the ongoing conflict in Syria shows no signs of ending soon. Yet the shape and scope of the conflict is not entirely incidental, and Turkey’s own missteps and miscalculations have played a major role in creating the quagmire that it has found itself being sucked into. As things stand, the Syria crisis not only threatens Turkey’s new-found regional influence and popularity but could also cause major problems at home.

Where previous Turkish governments had shunned the Arab world, AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s mantra of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ saw Ankara engage with the Middle East at the same time as it maintained close ties with the west. Syria –its 911km border being Turkey’s longest – became the cornerstone for this engagement. After settling their historical differences over water, territory and Syria’s past support for Kurdish rebels, bilateral relations saw a dramatic improvement: Turkish exports to Syria quadrupled between 2006 and 2010, visa requirements were dropped and joint cabinet meetings were held. Erdoğan even holidayed with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, by opening up Syria, Turkey opened up the Arab world. Syria provided a trade route to Arab states further south and, whether through dubbing soap operas or sharing an anti-Israeli platform, helped to improve Turkey’s image on the Arab street.

Thus when the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, Erdoğan did not call on Assad to step down, as he had of President Mubarak in Egypt, but instead urged reform. Turkish foreign ministry officials claim that they even drafted a speech for Assad to deliver that outlined democratic reform. As Assad was deploying lethal force against then-peaceful protestors, Davutoğlu made several trips to Damascus to urge change, all the while insisting to Turkey’s western allies that his government could be persuasive. He was wrong. By August 2011, Turkey had realised that for all their closeness they had no real leverage and Erdoğan joined the growing calls for Assad to resign.

Ties rapidly deteriorated. Turkey hosted the political Syrian opposition, the largely ineffectual Syrian National Council (SNC), introduced economic sanctions and, when the opposition eventually took up arms, provided sanctuary for the armed opposition, the Free Syria Army (FSA). Tensions along the now-closed border escalated, with Syria even shooting down a Turkish jet in June, killing two. The possibility of NATO military strikes being launched from within Turkey in order to create rebel safe havens within Syria have been repeatedly mooted, though not approved. Erdoğan’s holidays with Assad are now a distant memory.

Why did Turkey turn so suddenly on Syria? Publically, officials make the moral case: they could not stand by while Assad butchered his own people. Perhaps – but Erdoğan’s slowness to condemn similar actions by Gaddafi in 2011 or by Iran in 2009 suggests a willingness to deploy realpolitik when necessary. Ankara’s actions are instead based on an array of internal, regional and global calculations. Contrary to some suggestions, Turkey is not simply following US directions to use the Syria crisis to push Assad’s key ally, Iran, out of the region. Erdoğan has his own agenda, which happens to overlap in places with US interests. Primarily, Turkey fears a protracted civil war and the collapse of Syria’s territorial integrity, aware that it could embolden Kurdish separatists, provide a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and lure in regional competitors.

Regionally, there is a desire to be on the right side in the Arab spring. Turkey, which had made no previous attempt to promote Arab democracy within its ‘zero problems’strategy, was thrown by the events of 2011. After slow reactions to developments in both Libya and Syria, Ankara has sought to retain its high standing on the Arab street by replacing ‘zero problems’ with what Davutoğlu calls a ‘values-based’ foreign policy, backing democratic forces. Related to this is a further aim: to retain influence over Syria and the wider region after the Assad regime falls. By backing the Syrian opposition – promoting its allies the Muslim Brotherhood within the SNC and providing bases and support to the FSA – Turkey hopes to win favour with whoever succeeds Assad. This process can also work to contain the influence of other regional powers – not just of Iran, but also of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have boosted their own influence by sending arms and money to the FSA and particularly to the growing Salafist Islamist contingent within those forces. Turkey’s recent decision to cooperate with the Gulf states on the FSA – reportedly establishing a secret shared command centre in Adana in southern Turkey to coordinate rebel attacks –appears partly designed to contain the influence of others and control which groups get arms.

Erdoğan’s hubris ?

Yet Erdoğan – who, though elected, effectively controls all foreign policy, aided by Davutoğlu –has made several missteps and miscalculations. Firstly, Assad’s regime is stronger than he thought. On breaking with Syria in August 2011, Ankara assumed that Assad, like the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, would soon collapse under popular pressure. However, despite a year and a half of demonstrations, sanctions and armed resistance, the core of the regime remains intact. Although many individual soldiers have switched sides, no whole units have defected, as happened in Libya, leaving Assad with a monopoly on heavy weaponry and air power. Although few expect him to survive indefinitely, dislodging him may require the kind of very long, destabilising civil war that Turkey sought to avoid.

Turkey also overestimated the unity and power of the Syrian opposition in exile that it backed. Rather than being seen as a government-in-waiting as was hoped, Syrian demonstrators saw them instead as being out of touch. Indeed, by promoting their allies the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey helped to dissuade several key groups from backing the SNC, including Syria’s Kurds, Christians and secular Sunnis.

Within Turkey, critics complain that Erdoğan’s arrogance led to these mistakes. He believed that he and his advisors ‘understood’ Syria and its population, despite the Turkish foreign ministry boasting surprisingly few Arabic speakers or experts on Syria. The main opposition party, the CHP, argues that Erdoğan was wrong firstly to be so close to Assad before 2011 but then that he went too far the other way by cutting all ties so abruptly in August and demanding regime change, thereby removing any remaining leverage. Several columnists complain that, for the first time since the creation of the republic in 1923, the Turkish government is openly calling for regime change in a neighbouring state. Moreover, Turkey is hosting, funding and – allegedly – arming an opposition group, a practice it has long abhorred, such as when neighbours supported militant Kurdish separatists.

Whether it was unavoidable or partly Erdoğan’s fault, Syria’s descent into civil war now not only threatens Turkey’s regional ambitions but could also cause instability at home. Well over 50,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey to flee the violence. Although this situation is containable for now, history provides countless examples of waves of refugees – whether Palestinian, Afghani or Congolese – sparking major strife in their new host countries. Ethnic tensions have already been awoken. Turkey’s 500,000 Alawis – of the same sect as Bashar al-Assad – fear that the influx of (mostly Sunni) Syrian refugees, many of whom blame Syria’s Alawis as a whole for Assad’s butchery, could turn Turkish Sunnis against them. Turkey’s Alevis, a larger group of 15–20 million people who share their origins with the Alawis, have expressed similar concerns. Turkey’s strong nationalist identity has traditionally spared it sectarian tension, yet some fear the AKP’s Syria policy could lead down that route.

Even among Turkey’s Sunni majority, the AKP is facing popular opposition to its increased involvement in Syria. While most Turks oppose Assad, a poll in the Zaman newspaper in July 2012 found that only 28 per cent supported Turkish military action against him, and barely 33 per cent agreed with Erdoğan’s current policy. This opposition is not just from secularists, who fear an Islamist government next door if Assad falls, but exists among many of the 50 per cent who voted for AKP in 2011. Despite holding a commanding political position, Erdoğan must be wary of letting the Syrian crisis erode his base, especially given his ambitions to become president in 2014.

The Anatolian Tigers and the Kurds

Two major fallouts from Syria could prove particularly damaging to Erdoğan and his government. Economically, much of the AKP’s popularity rests on the boom they oversaw since 2002. Significant new AKP support comes from the manufacturing cities of central Turkey – the so-called ‘Anatolian tigers’ – that rely on Middle Eastern markets. Although Syrian trade was relatively modest and only a few regions, notably Hatay, have been damaged by the border closure, there are fears the conflict may destabilise its neighbours – notably the vital market of northern Iraq – and so hit Turkey’s economy in the AKP heartland.

The second major fallout is the implications for Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The Syria crisis has exacerbated the decades-long armed struggle between the government and the PKK. The Syrian regime has largely withdrawn from its own Kurdish territories, allowing the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD, to fill the vacuum and provide their Turkish comrades with additional support. Moreover, the Syrian regime itself is accused of reviving its direct ties to the PKK from the 1990s as a means to punish Turkey for backing the FSA, encouraging domestic terror attacks such as a bomb in Gaziantep in August that killed eight. Finally, with north-eastern Syria now effectively an autonomous Kurdish enclave, rather like northern Iraq before it, the pressure on Turkey to permit something similar in its own eastern Kurdish territory will only grow.

Turkey’s Syria problem shows no sign of going away. Even if the regime is eventually toppled, the opposition has not shown the unity needed to hold the country together, and so it is feared that a civil war may erupt in post-Assad Syria regardless. Turkey faces a dilemma. The longer the conflict rages, the more likely it is that the instability it dreads will follow. Erdoğan seems reluctant to directly intervene, however, knowing it may make matters worse, creating a power vacuum that is likely to be filled by Turkey’s enemies. Having invested a lot of regional and domestic capital in toppling Assad, however, he can’t really step back from his current policy of backing the armed rebels in the hope they’ll make the breakthrough alone. Nevertheless, his does seem to be a strategy based on hope more than anything else. Through a combination of poor judgment and bad luck, Erdoğan now finds himself heavily invested in Syria’s future but with little control over how things are developing. While he and his AKP party may yet emerge in the elevated regional position they sought as the Arab spring broke out, the Syrian quagmire may yet undermine and submerge much that they have built in the last decade.