June 14th, 2011
05:06 PM ET

The consequences of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Editor’s Note: Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Andrew J. Tabler is Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the upcoming book "In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria."

By Andrew J. Tabler and Soner Cagaptay – Special to CNN

Over 8,500 Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, escaping a violent crackdown by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

As the crisis continues in Syria, Turkey is reportedly preparing to accept tens of thousands of more refugees. Indeed, if violence continues, there will certainly be more Syrian refugees flooding into Turkey. The consequences of this will be profound for the U.S., Syria, Turkey and the region.

Why many more refugees are likely if violence continues

If the Syrian regime continues its violent crackdown - as all signs indicate it will- many more Syrians will take refuge in Turkey. Why?

First, the Turkish-Syrian border is an open one. The 544-mile Turkish-Syrian border runs largely across flat terrain. There are few physical barriers. The two countries are working to remove minefields along their border. They also lifted mutual visa restrictions.

Second, familial and ethnic ties link people across the border. Drawn at the end of the World War I to follow an Ottoman railway line, the Turkish-Syrian border does not conform to ethnic divisions. There are ethnic Arabs on the Turkish side of the border and ethnic Turks and Turkmens on the Syrian side. Kurds and Eastern Christians live to the north and south of the borderline. Knowing that they will be welcomed by family and friends and kin tribes once they cross the Turkish border, Syrians are much more likely to seek refuge in Turkey.

Third, the Syrian side of the border is heavily populated, especially along its eastern and western stretches. For instance, Aleppo - Syria’s second largest city with 3 million inhabitants of mixed Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen and Christian heritage – lies only 26 miles from the Turkish border.

In case of unrest and crackdown in this city, it is conceivable that we could witness a refugee flow numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

The geopolitical consequences of the refugees

On Syria

Until recently, both Washington and Ankara have used engagement and dialogue with the Assad regime to try to change its regional behavior. Most notably, the two capitals have tried to make Syria separate from Iran and give up its support for Hezbollah.

The U.S. and Turkey have also sought to revive stalled Israel-Syria peace talks, which were last carried out under Turkish auspices in 2008.

But with protests sweeping Syria and the Assad regime’s violent response, such negotiation efforts are over. Both Washington and Ankara have shifted their focus from pushing for Israel-Syria peace to condemning gross human-rights violations in Syria.

On Turkish-Syrian ties

Turkish-Syrian ties started to improve in the late 1990s. Turkey successfully pressed Damascus to stop harboring the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that had used Syrian territory and the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley in Lebanon as a training ground to carry out terror attacks in Turkey since the late 1970s. Turkey threatened to invade Syria, and the Assad regime, taking this threat seriously, kicked out the PKK.

Bilateral ties improved further when Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 in Turkey and launched its policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Turkey worked to improve Turkish-Syrian relations. Since then, the two countries have held joint military exercises and strategic discussions at the cabinet level.

With overall trade of around $2.5 billion in 2010, Turkey stands as Syria’s largest trading partner.

But the recent uprising in Syria has put Ankara between a rock and a hard place. Should Ankara stand with the regime or side with the protesters?

So far, Turkey has tried to do both.

It asked Assad to stop using violence. Assad refused and instead sent tanks into Syrian cities. Ankara has kept its line of communication to the Assad regime open, but it is now under pressure to institute trade sanctions on Damascus in an attempt to stop the regime’s bloodletting.

The AKP recently allowed a gathering of the Syrian opposition in Antalya, Turkey, to draft an opposition manifesto. The governing party in Ankara has also allowed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, one of Syria’s best-organized opposition groups and an ideological kin of the AKP, to operate publicly in Istanbul.

How long can Ankara’s policy of working with the regime while aiding its opponents last?

If the crackdown turns even bloodier and refugees continue to flow into Turkey, bringing the humanitarian crisis to the TV and computer screens of common Turks, Ankara will be forced to confront the Syrian regime more vociferously.

On Turkey

A flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey could have unintended consequences by allowing unwanted visitors into Turkey.

The PKK is well organized in ethnically Kurdish areas of northern Syria along the Turkish border, including in Azez and Kameshli. The Syrian branch of the PKK is a hard-line faction that opts for violence. The Turkish branch is in the process of integrating itself into the Turkish political system.

In the recent Turkish elections on June 12, 36 deputies belonging to the Kurdish nationalist Peace and Democracy Party, which publicly states its sympathies for the PKK, entered the Turkish parliament.

If a flow of hard-line PKK members and sympathizers were to enter Turkey, this could potentially re-direct the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey toward a violent stance.

A flow of Syrian refugees could also inflame Turkish public opinion to demand its government breaks ties with Assad. Given the ethnic ties that cut across the Turkish-Syrian border, the AKP government is likely to come under pressure from the many Turkish citizens who have family across the Syrian border.

Finally, if the crackdown in Syria takes on a sectarian color with the Alawite regime appearing to persecute the Sunni population, this could have ripple effects across the border, creating unwanted tensions between Turkey’s own Alawite and Sunni populations.

The situation is in flux, and Washington, Ankara and others should pay attention to Syrian refugees moving to Turkey. They could change the region in substantial ways, many of which we cannot predict and likely cannot control.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Andrew J. Tabler and Soner Cagaptay.

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    For this reason Turkey is just doing what's required in internatioal law. It just caters for the basic necessities without granting the refugees any legal status, so that they can't remain in the country indefinitely.
    Ethnic and sectarian tensions are not new in this region. An appropriate solution would be to grant these ethnic minorities autonomy and sovereignty. It is not worth the while to have a large – in terms of surface area – state by cosolidating the unity of different ethnies, if they can't co-exist peacefully.

    June 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  2. No More Wars For Israel

    Washington Institute for Near East Policy is a neocon zionist so called "think thank" who see everything through israel's interests. . Cagaptay is a close associate of notorious likudnik israel-firster Michael Rubin who recently called for America to wage war on Iran (for Israel's interests of course). You'd think CNN would know better than to publish their "analysis".

    June 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Can you elaborate on this? I'm interested to know WHY is it in Israeli interests to have the US to wage a war on peaceful Iran?

      June 16, 2011 at 4:26 am | Reply
  3. james2

    If the Arab Spring is any indication of a change in attitude in the region, then a violent Syrian PKK should not be any real problem. The Arab Spring represents a rebuke of violence as a means to achieve political goals. Would the Kurds really embrace violence in the face of these historic revolutions? According to this report (http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/06/20116138190522760.html), Erdogan seems pretty intent on providing more rights to the Kurdish population, so I don't see why an influx of a few more violent members of a political group would prevail. The ranks of the Syrian military are starting to crack anyway. Erdogan's best approach should be to cut off economic ties with Bashar al-Assad and reestablish them once reforms have been instituted in Syria.

    June 15, 2011 at 12:54 am | Reply
    • Cristobal

      he did, mostly, but if he didn't have to work his regalur job, he'd be living in Kas. What is it about Kas that makes so many people say things like this? I had been hearing this about Kas for years, about how pretty and peaceful it was, about the people who live there. Nobody could describe it, they just said you have to come and see it. So I went and I saw it. In March 2011 a friend, who knew I was considering Kas as a place to live, called and said he'd found an apartment for me at an excellent price. I hadn't even asked him to do so. I flew to Kas. And I signed a lease within four hours of my arrival, even though I still had three months left on my apartment contract in Izmir. I didn't actually move everything to Kas until June.Since then, I've become one of those people who can't describe Kas.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:52 am | Reply
  4. david

    Tyria bad ass ... Tyria bad ass ... Tyria bad ass. That's all they are going to run in the media ... only to get

    an approval to get to bomb it.

    Look at what they run in the media ... look whose sides they take ... look at what they want to do and look

    at their targets ... nice fat sheep with a lot of wool.

    Read More


    June 15, 2011 at 5:57 am | Reply

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