For Syria’s opposition activists, Turkey 'best of the bad'

While initially welcoming millions of refugees and supporting opposition activists after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Turkish government has since shifted positions to further its own interests in a manner that dismays many Syrians living in the country.

al-monitor Turkish anti-riot police officers run as Kurds protest a Turkish military operation in Syria, in Istanbul, on Oct. 13, 2019. Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 10, 2020

Nisreen Ali, a young Syrian activist with big dreams, moved to Turkey in April 2015. She planned to set up in Gaziantep, a vibrant city near the Syrian border that was full of “people who wanted to change our country, to shape its future, people like me.” Ali found a job as a multimedia journalist for a Syrian opposition radio station. She was going to go in and out of rebel-controlled Aleppo and report what she saw. “When I heard how Aleppo was fighting against extremists and jihadists who were trying to hijack our revolution, I was really excited. I wanted to be among them. I had an ideal picture of how my life here would be,” Ali said.

Five years on, the 32-year-old is suffused with bitterness and despair. She uses a pseudonym to avert reprisal from the Turkish government. Her mother warns her daily to avoid posting “dangerous words” on social media about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Western-funded humanitarian organization she works for dares not mention Turkey’s repeated stoppage of water to close to a million people in northeastern Syria in its reports. And Aleppo is back under the full grip of the Syrian regime.

“The Syrian revolution was a revolution against corruption, against fear. I didn’t want to live in fear. So I came here and once again we are living in fear,” Ali said. “You see Turkey fucking up your country and you can’t even write about it.”

Her feelings are echoed by Syrian activists who came to Turkey in the early days of the uprising, hoping to find greater freedom only to see it evaporate. Mohammed Mustafa (a pseudonym), the Turkey-based editor of a website that documents violations in Syria, is one of them. “The [Turkish] intelligence services summoned me and told me in not so many words, ‘Either you do what we want or you have no place.’ Several times,” Mustafa told Al-Monitor. “I can’t publish everything as before, to be frank. Anyone who can get smuggled to Europe leaves, and those who can’t leave better stay silent and that’s that. Now I need to leave.” 

How did Turkey go from being a haven for Syrian oppositionists of all hues — one that welcomed nearly four million Syrian refugees, more than any other country — to the hell that a growing number are now seeking to flee? The reasons are multiple and intertwined; most are linked to the shifting dynamics of Syria’s nine-year-long civil conflict and to the dramatic changes within Turkey itself.

Russia muscles in

The fall of Aleppo in 2016 was a turning point in Turkey's Syria policy. Few believe the regime could have regained control of the rebel-held eastern part of the city had it not been for Erdogan’s tacit assent. “It came as a huge shock; we realized that Turkey wasn’t really our friend,” said Ali.

Russia’s military intervention in 2015 tipped the balance of power in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor and helped precipitate Ankara’s about-face. In particular, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 enraged Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and forced Ankara to reverse its campaign to overthrow the Assad regime.

It has since been working with Moscow to rein in Sunni rebels, while deploying the latter — now gathered under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA) — against Syria’s Kurds instead of the Syrian government.

Labib al-Nahhas, a Syrian opposition politician, argues that Turkey had little choice. “I was personally involved in the negotiations with the Russians for Aleppo and they were different from as portrayed. ‘Sellout’ wasn’t accurate at all,” he told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview from London. “There was a strong push from Turkey to keep Aleppo till the last moment. But the humanitarian situation and the level of violence that the Russians were applying to Aleppo proved overwhelming and the understanding between the armed groups and Russia that Turkey was pushing for failed.”

By January 2018, Turkey’s new priorities became clear when it invaded the Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin, which was controlled by the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units. Turkey claimed, with scant evidence, that the group threatened its national security.

Afrin, hailed for its rolling hills, olive groves and Hittite ruins, has since descended into chaos — and impunity. Rights groups say SNA-affiliated factions have been kidnapping and raping local women and committing war crimes under Turkey’s watch.

Syrian Arabs bused into Afrin from rebel-held territories clawed back by the regime have been resettled in the homes of Kurds, who in turn were displaced by the Turkish occupation. “We thought that the fall of Aleppo was the worst thing that could happen, but the invasion of Afrin was the worst thing that Turkey did. It sowed violence between Kurds and Arab Syrians where none existed. Turkey exported its own Kurdish problem to Syria and made criminals out of Assad’s victims,” said Ali, who is an ethnic Kurd from Afrin.

Last year Turkey began flying Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight alongside its allies in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter. “Boys who were nine when our uprising started in 2011 are now 18 and fighting for Turkey in Libya. This isn’t the future any of us imagined; it’s a new low,” Ali said.

“The mercenaries, some of them children, are recruited inside Turkish-occupied Syria by the SNA. This was the decisive blow to all those claiming this is a Syrian 'National' Army project, that they are ‘liberators.’ The situation in Libya and the mercenary situation has had a major impact [on Syrians’ perceptions of Turkey],” said Mustafa, the website editor. It was his articles critical of the SNA that drew Turkish authorities’ ire.

From revolutionaries to sycophants

But Turkish authorities are not the only problem. Syrians are turning on Syrians too. “Some Syrians have carried a Baath culture to Turkey, the submissiveness to power and the snitching culture,” noted Nahhas, the Syrian opposition politician. “They treat the Turkish authorities like they used to treat the regime and feel compelled to accept everything they mete out, whereas the Turks are looking for answers and not getting them.”

Mustafa said he has a friend who was deported to Syria as he was preparing to leave for Europe, after being informed on for anti-SNA activity. Another of his contacts from Deir ez-Zor is serving a jail sentence in Turkey on trumped up charges as a result of snitching.

A Western Syria expert who requested anonymity in order to speak freely concurred that Syrians seemed unable to shake off old habits. “Syrians behave in a very servile fashion [toward Turkish authorities], being overly obedient and respectful to the point of groveling. In Afrin, a square was named after Erdogan. They were not asked to do so but wanted to express their loyalty to Erdogan. They were taught this by the Assad regime; it’s very sad.”

Assaad al-Achi, a prominent Syrian Arab activist who heads Baytna Syria, an independent nonprofit that funds democracy-building projects in Syria, contended that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is especially prone to such behavior. He told Al-Monitor, “I have heard them say, ‘Turkey is our brother and Turkey knows better what is for our good, better than we do. Turkey is the mother and Syria is the child and when the life of the mother is under threat, it’s OK to kill the baby. Whatever Erdogan does is absolutely right.’”

The pervasive feeling among many Syrians is that the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition has been reduced to serving Turkey’s interests and fighting Turkey’s wars.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington-based think tank with access to myriad Syrian opposition networks. She told Al-Monitor, “Multiple bodies are claiming to speak on behalf of the Syrians who revolted against their dictatorship, but in reality, these bodies are not independent. Earlier in the war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar held much sway over the foreign-based opposition, and now Turkey essentially controls these bodies.”

“The Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition (Etilaf) largely represent Turkey's interests and echo Turkey's talking points to the international community and before the Syrian public. Syrians who live in Turkey or in areas under its control in Syria limit what they express in public, fearing arrest and deportation.”

“For example, many Syrians who live in Turkey or in areas under Turkish control in Syria opposed the Turkish-led operations in Afrin and northeastern Syria, yet very few dared to express such opposition in public,” Tsurkov wrote in emailed comments.

A Turkish meltdown?

The year 2016 marked a turning point not only because of Aleppo’s fall. On July 15, a group of rogue Turkish army officers sought to bloodily overthrow Erdogan. Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni cleric who took up residence in the United States to avoid imprisonment in 1999, was accused of masterminding the failed putsch, which catapulted an increasingly autocratic Erdogan into repression overdrive.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalists, academics and judges, have been purged and locked up for their alleged links to the coup plotters. “The Turkey I came to in 2012 became unrecognizable after the coup [attempt],” said Bassam al-Ahmad, who heads Syrians for Truth and Justice, a non-partisan nonprofit that documents rights violations in Syria. Pressure on Ahmad began mounting when Turkish intelligence officials showed up unannounced at his office on Istiklal Avenue in the heart of Istanbul to grill him and his staff about their activities. “It was very clear they were unhappy with what we were doing even though our reports did not directly criticize Turkey,” Ahmad told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview.

SNA-friendly and pro-Muslim Brotherhood Syrians, however, are largely immune to such interventions. “Istanbul today is indeed a Muslim Brotherhood hub. The Turkish state is investing and supporting the organization’s branches and, most importantly, facilitating efforts to organize and represent them. Dozens of television stations, mostly affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood branches, attest to Turkish encouragement of these groups,” wrote Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center in a nuanced and insightful essay reflecting on how Istanbul is reshaping attitudes of Arab communities, with some shedding their conservative Muslim spots.

In May 2019, Ahmad left Turkey after being granted asylum by France, where he is finally free to document Turkish abuses in his country. He reckons he left just in time.

Last year Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed alone since 2002, suffered a humiliating defeat in municipal elections held in March. Growing popular resentment toward Syrians had taken its toll as the economy, the mainstay of the AKP’s enduring success, began to wobble. In an August 2019 survey carried out by the Ankara-based polling organization Metropoll, over 71% of respondents said Syrian refugees had made their cities less secure. Nearly half said they ought to be sent back home.

The “silver lining,” commented Ali wryly, “is that when Turks tell us to get out of their country we can now tell them to get out of ours.”

Starting in 2018, the government began arbitrary deportations of Syrians back to Syria, while restricting their movements within Turkey itself.

Achi said he was “scared to death” when the pro-Erdogan Turkish media launched a smear campaign against his outfit in 2017. It published outlandish claims that Baytna Syria was paying $500 weekly salaries to Kurdish separatists. “We did not know where it was coming from,” he said. The media attacks have stopped. But “it’s impossible to get work permits and you can’t live on a tourist visa for the rest of your life,” Achi said. He and his wife are moving to Belgium.

“At the beginning I was able to get residency; my presence in Turkey was legal. I wasn’t scared at all to move around,” said a Syrian journalist who has lived in Turkey since 2015. “But in 2018 I encountered a situation where I wasn’t able to renew my passport at the Syrian consulate because of my stance toward the regime. And residency here is directly connected to an active passport. Because of that I couldn’t renew my residency, so I’ve become someone without any documentation that proves my residency here is legal. I can’t enter any official institution. All of these things have confined me to live in an area around one square kilometer. I’ve become like a bidun, to be honest,” he said, using the Arabic term for “stateless.”

The journalist, speaking on condition that he not be identified, noted that despite hardening Turkish attitudes, he remained “grateful” to “Turkey and its people.”

“Turkey has been like a double-edged sword. On the humanitarian level, Turkey did a lot of positive things for us compared to other countries, but on the political level, Turkey played the game to further its own interests, and Turkey had a role in ensuring we lost our land,” he said. “However, if we were asked to name which country took the best position, even if all positions were bad, we would definitely choose Turkey. Turkey’s position was the best of bad positions. Turkey was the best of the bad.”

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