World Review | Syrian refugees put Turkey under severe strain

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Syrian refugees put Turkey under severe strain

Syrian refugees put Turkey under severe strain
Syrian refugees are fleeing to Turkey and neighbouring countries (photo:dpa)

THE LONG 900km (560 mile) border between Turkey and Syria has provided one of the main routes of escape for the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria since the early summer of 2011.

The Turkish government estimated that, as of September 2013, it had a population of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, although the United Nations figure is somewhat lower at 460,000.

The Turkish government, according to its own estimates, has already spent more than US$1.5 billion on the refugee crisis. Additional funds have come from international organisations, particularly the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, the children’s charity, UNICEF, private relief organisations and foreign governments.

Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in September 2013 that international assistance had ‘barely met the absolute minimum’.

But there has been criticism of Turkey’s handling of the crisis, with UNHCR complaining that it has not been given unrestricted access to the refugees.

Present-day Turkey and Syria are linked by a shared history going back to the beginning of the 16th century. The historical path of the two countries diverged only after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Turkey declared its independence in 1923. Syria became a French mandate and only gained independence in 1945.

When Syrian refugees started arriving in Turkey, public focus shifted to the present-day southern Turkish province of Hatay, on the border with Syria.

Hatay was under Syrian sovereignty until 1938, when, after a disputed referendum, France ceded it to Turkey to win over Ankara for the impending war effort. No Syrian government has ever recognised Turkish sovereignty over Hatay.

Hatay and the neighbouring region in Syria share a number of similarities. The Turkish province has a strong Arabic-speaking community, some of whom are Sunni Muslims. Others are affiliated with various Christian denominations, especially the Syrian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox Churches.

But most of the political controversy surrounds the Alawite minority of Hatay, whose members belong to the same religious group as the political elite of Syria, including the family of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Turkish administration is worried that the sectarian strife which has plagued Syria since the outbreak of fighting against President Assad in March 2011 might spread to Turkey, with the Syrian government establishing a fifth column among the religious minorities of Hatay, especially the Alawites, in order to destabilise its neighbour to the north.

The outbreak of the Syrian uprising ushered in a new era of tension after years of good relations between Ankara and Damascus.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called upon President Assad to heed the voice of the opposition and initiate political change. But when the Syrian president remained impervious to the warning and used force to crack down on the insurgents, Mr Erdogan demanded his removal from office and has supported the Syrian opposition ever since.

The political leaders of the Syrian opposition have held meetings in Turkey on a regular basis and maintain an office in Istanbul.

The Turkish government has been urging the international community to take military action for some time. There is increasing frustration in Ankara over the attitude of the West, particularly the United States, over the conflict. It regards the Syrian announcement that it will comply with the latest Russian-US initiative to hand over its chemical weapons as nothing more than a stalling tactic.

Turkish authorities have turned a blind eye, in the absence of international intervention, to the training facilities which have been set up in some of the refugee camps where young men are being prepared for military missions in Syria.

Some Turkish residents affected by the influx, are exhibiting strong resentment towards Syrian refugees. They are fearful that the refugees will bring their conflicts with them and endanger the peaceful and tolerant coexistence of religious communities.

The majority of the Turkish electorate have expressed their dissatisfaction with Mr Erdogan’s policy towards Syria, and are against the military option.

A Turkish jet has shot down a Syrian military helicopter after it entered Turkish airspace on September 16, 2013. The incident could signal an increase of military pressure by Turkey on the Syrian regime either directly, as in the case of the helicopter incident, or indirectly, by stepping up support for the opposition.

Professor Dr Udo Steinbach

Professor Dr Udo Steinbach is a Middle East specialist who teaches at the Centre of Near and Middle East Studies at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany. He was Director of the German ...

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