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Turkey's Upcoming Election and its Impact on the Return of Syrian Refugees

Turkey's Upcoming Election and its Impact on the Return of Syrian Refugees

Tuesday, 10 May, 2022 - 11:45

The upcoming elections in Turkey (in a year's time or maybe even as early as November as some observers claim) and not so favorable public opinion poll results have put President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party government on alert.

The government has quite a number of challenges in many areas, economy and international relations at the forefront, and it needs success stories. The most recent de-escalation steps and openings with a number of countries in the region and beyond have been considered mostly within this framework.

In any case, the war in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for the Turkish government.

Take Turkey and the United States as an example. Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2017 had a very serious negative impact on bilateral relations. Congress applied CAATSA sanctions on its NATO ally and excluded it from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Recently, Turkey made an attempt to purchase 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets and approximately 80 modernization kits. Even for that, Congress was unreceptive to say the least.

But Turkey’s policies during the war in Ukraine created a rather positive climate.

Congress is said to be more willing to consider Turkey’s request. The US lawmakers must have also realized that weakening Turkey means weakening NATO and American interests. Against such an aggressive Russia, the US should need to keep its allies on its side and in good shape.

Back to the title of this article, there are many serious problems emanating from Syria but two in particular; one is security and the other is Syrian refugees, more specifically, their return to Syria.

On security issues, the Turkish government can claim a success story. Serious damage has been inflicted on the People's Protection Units (YPG) - Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and ISIS, both inside Turkey and beyond the borders in Syria and Iraq.

The other issue is complicated, especially at this point in time. The solution depends very much on cooperation with Damascus, but the two capitals are not on talking terms. To be more precise, Erdogan and Asad are not talking to each other.

The intelligence services of the two countries have met in the past. It is said that they recently began to meet again. If that is the case, they are keeping it very close to their chest, which indicates that time is not ripe to come out in the open.

The return of Syrians has become a very domestic policy issue to the point that it could bring or take away votes in Turkish elections. In an electoral system where “plus one” vote may make a difference, this issue has become extremely important for Turkish politicians. For the first time in Turkish politics, there is even a political party established to address the refugee issue in particular.

It should be noted that Syrians are not being singled out. Others such as Afghans and Africans are also part of the issue. But the Syrians are the most numerous (3.7 million according to official figures). Turkey has granted temporary protection status to Syrians who fled the war.

Opposition political parties are claiming that they will be able to send Syrians back in a year or two. When they are asked how they plan to do that, their reply is “by talking to Assad”. From where I stand, that is not really a very comforting and convincing plan. But at least, their objective has been clear from the outset, which is, as they put it, “to return Syrians back to their country, in a safe, dignified and voluntary way”.

The government on the other hand, throughout years, has taken different positions at different times. Now, it seems that they are responding to opinion polls. As the general popular feeling in Turkey is to have them back in their country, the government is now much more vocal in this direction.

The government is trying to take the lead on Syrians and others as the only viable option to deal with the problem effectively. They claim that half a million Syrians are already back and many more will be on their way. They also criticize the stance of opposition parties as immature, unrealistic and racist.

Just a couple of days ago, Erdogan announced a plan which envisages the voluntary return of an additional one million refugees. According to what he said, Syrians will go back to “secure areas”, where so-called “bricket houses” (average 60 square meters) and hospitals, schools, places of worship, market places etc are being built.

Who pays for all that? This depends on who answers the question.

The Minister of Interior said that all is built with donations from Turkish individuals, including himself and the President. The opposition claims that there may be some donations and some financial assistance from abroad, but the burden is basically on Turkish tax payers.

To conclude, international organizations are busy mainly with Ukrainian refugees now. There are also other places in need such as Afghanistan, the Tigray region and Yemen. Resources are scarce, donors are more or less the same and priorities are different. Under these circumstances, Syrians have become a distant concern for the international community.

So, the burden falls on neighbors.

According to Turkish government figures, almost 500,000 Syrians have returned. (The UNHCR figures indicate less). The Syrians who returned went back to three “secure areas” in northern Syria. These areas are under the control of Syrian opposition and Hayat Tahrir Sham in Idlib.

The YPG has been criticized for changing the demographics of the region and for a fact, they have done that. There are also those who claim that the same concern is valid in the case of returning Syrians to “secure areas”, as the majority of them are from other parts of Syria.

In any event, what is almost clear is that as we get closer to the elections, divisions are very likely to get deeper and discussions to further intensify in Turkey on this issue.

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