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How politics in Turkey has been shaped by Syria’s war

  • Galip Dalay

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

The Syrian war has left its indelible imprint on Turkey’s domestic politics and its effects will be felt for a long time to come.

While a wave of normalization efforts suggest the Middle East has entered a post-Arab Spring period, the impact of the uprisings continue to shape domestic politics across the region. In Turkey, the Syrian war has had the strongest impact. The crisis has securitized Turkey’s domestic politics, aggravated the Kurdish issue, triggered large refugee inflows – which has become an extremely politicized issue – and changed the nature of Turkish nationalism.

Securitization of domestic politics

Turkey’s longest land border is with Syria. The conflict therefore has direct security ramifications for Turkey, contributing to the securitization of its domestic politics. When ISIS was expanding its control in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2016–17, it had spillover effects on neighbouring countries, including Turkey. Between 2015 and the beginning of 2017, ISIS conducted a series of attacks that targeted Turkey’s economy and ethnic and sectarian faultlines, attacking key infrastructure and tourist hotspots, as well as pro-Kurdish rallies or similar sensitive targets.

Another key issue in the securitization of Turkey’s domestic politics was the Kurdistan Worker Party’s (PKK) decision to launch urban warfare in the country’s eastern and southeastern Kurdish-majority cities. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the PKK started an urban warfare and declared so-called ‘self-rule’ in several towns or districts. In response, apart from clearing the PKK from such ‘self-rule’ areas, the government adopted a heavy-handed policy towards the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic People Party (HDP) and its affiliated groups, imprisoning many of its leaders and members.

The collapse of the Kurdish peace process

As a corollary to the above, Turkey’s Kurdish peace process, announced at the end of 2012, officially collapsed in July 2015. The Kurdish dimension of the Syrian crisis played a major role in the failure of this process. As the conflict went on, the Kurdish People’s Democratic Union (PYD) and its military wing People’s Defense Units (YPG) – the Syrian affiliate of the PKK – emerged as a major local actor in Syria, expanding its territorial control and carving out a zone of self-rule that later came to serve as the US ‘boot-on-the-ground’ in the fight against ISIS. Initially, despite the existence of a peace process, the Turkish government and PYD or PKK could not agree on a framework in Syria. The government saw the PYD-YPG’s fast expanding self-rule (particularly between 2014 and 2016) as a national security threat, while PYD-YPG gains in Syria emboldened the PKK and arguably decreased their commitment to the peace process.

Against this backdrop, Turkey undertook series of military operations in Syria, both against ISIS-controlled areas initially but more extensively against the PYD-YPG. This further intensified the securitization of Turkey’s domestic politics as well as its nationalist turn. This twin process, coupled with the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, paved the way for the alliance between President Erdoğan and the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP).

Refugees and the rise of far-right politics

The Syrian war has driven 3.5–4 million refugees into Turkey, paving the way for the emergence of anti-refugee far-right political parties, and contributing to a tide of xenophobic populism.

At first, this issue was not as politicized. The government treated it as a transient issue, referring to ‘guests’ who were under ‘temporary protection’ in Turkey. Turkey retains a geographical limitation to its ratification of the 1951 Geneva Convention, meaning refugee status is only given to those fleeing events in Europe. Turkey therefore does not recognize Syrians as refugees and their status in the country is fragile. Devoid of legal status and protection, Syrians are at the mercy of the Turkish government and the political climate. Turkey now has single-issue far-right parties, such as the Victory Party, which almost exclusively focuses on the refugee issue, increasing the toxic political climate.

As Turkey inches towards its local elections in March 2024, the refugee issue is once again high on the political agenda. In major metropolitan cities such as Istanbul, the arrests and deportations of Syrian refugees has become prevalent, meaning Ankara is in breach of its Geneva Convention commitments. Despite Turkey having a geographical limitation, it should still abide by the principle of the non-refoulement to unsafe countries, hence prohibiting the forced deportation of Syrian refugees back to Syria.

A new form of Turkish nationalism

The above-mentioned factors have cumulatively had major impact on the nature of nationalism and nationalist politics in Turkey, in particular the arrival of millions of refugees. Opposition to (Syrian) refugees is one of the key elements of the new form of Turkish far-right nationalism, which is largely secular and sees the Arab and Islamic identities of refugees as posing demographic and cultural threats.

Much research has focused on how Turkey’s domestic politics, government and Erdoğan’s political identity have shaped Ankara’s policy towards the Syrian conflict, citing the Kurdish issue and Erdoğan’s Islamic political identity as key factors. Less discussed, but no less important, is that how the Syrian crisis has in turn shaped Turkey’s domestic politics. Irrespective of whether the region has entered a post-Arab Spring period or Ankara-Damascus normalization is on the horizon, the Syrian conflict has left its indelible imprint on Turkey’s domestic politics and its effects will be felt for a long time to come.