Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Syrians between a rock and a hard place on Turkey coup

Syrians between a rock and a hard place on Turkey coup

Mohammed — not his real name — is a Syrian opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad. In 2013, he fled to Turkey with his young family. A little over a week ago, he among the first out in Istanbul streets, waving the Turkish flag in support of President Recep Erdogan in the wake of the failed  coup.

Mohammed sent me a video of his young son, draped in the red crescent of the Turkish flag, among the tens of thousands who responded to Erdogan's call for mass mobilisation by his supporters against the short-lived coup.

Since then, Erdogan’s efforts to cleanse the country of what he has described as 'cancerous institutions' of the conspirators, including mass arrests of up to 50,000, have made the West nervous.

Do we look the other way as Erdogan talks about re-introducing the death penalty, as thousands of military men disappear, only to be seen half-naked and cuffed in state released photographs in a basketball court? As upwards of 1600 educators are sacked, academics are banned from leaving the country, and journalists are rounded up?

Fears of the President’s increasingly autocratic and dictatorial ways, his persecution of journalists, and reported mass human rights violations against the Kurds are uncomfortable truths about a NATO ally. Turkey is, after all, home to the largest air base from which the US is launching its air offensive against ISIS in the north of Iraq and Syria. It is also critical to Europe’s response to the refugee crisis; a recently agreed deal with Europe to try to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe by offering incentives for them to stay in Turkey has been credited with lowering the migrant death toll on the Aegean sea. 

Erdogan would also appear to be an unlikely hero for the largely Sunni Syrian opponents to Assad, who only five years ago rallied against the same kind of undemocratic leadership. [fold]

When I suggest this to Mohammed, his answer is straightforward and persuasive.

'We are scared. That’s all there is to it'.

The truth is, for all its problems, Turkey has been a safe haven for Syrians. Of the six million Syrian refugees now outside their country, some 2.7 million have made Turkey home. Turkey has given them limited work visas, opened Arabic schools, and recently raised the possibility of  citizenship.

If the coup had succeeded, Syrians fear they would have become the chief target of military secularists, and once again, they would have found themselves unwelcome. These are not idle fears; when Erdogan floated the idea of Syrian citizenship, 'I don’t want Syrians in my country', trended on Twitter. The Istanbul airport attack last month was largely seen as a result of Turkey’s position on Syria. Many even believe his pro-Islamic position and Anti-Assad stance were what spurred the putschists in the first place.

'We all remember Egypt', said another Syrian, Tarek, who lives in Istanbul, referring to the 2013 military counter-revolution which spurred a massive backlash against Syrians who had taken refuge in that country.

'If there was a secular coup here — where would we go?'

But another Syrian I spoke to was concerned the West’s response to Erdogan’s crackdown could also spell trouble.  Should the EU decide to discipline Erdogan by taking the EU visa deal off the table, Turkey may be inclined to send more Syrians their way.

'I worry we are going to see a lot of Syrians take the boats again and the deaths will start again', this refugee told me.

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