Blurring the Borders – Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey
International Crisis Group
30 April 2013
Turkey has struggled to find the right response to the Syrian civil war, which has brought shellfire, bombs, militias, refugees, sectarian tensions and uncertainty to its southern border. It has so far generously welcomed at least 300,000 Syrians. But this number could triple this year and prove unsustainable, with Turkey and the international community slow to work together, the Syrian conflict in a stalemate and Syria turning into a failed state. The border province of Hatay – whose geography and population make it a microcosm of Syria in Turkey – epitomises the humanitarian and security challenges Ankara faces. But Hatay also shows how refugees can be safely looked after. Turkey should allow entry to destitute Syrians waiting to cross, and change its regulations so that it can better receive international funds and assistance. The international community in turn should be far more generous and engaged in support of the Turkish aid effort.
Regionally, the Syria conflict symbolises how Turkey’s “zero problem” policy has become multiple problems. Ankara’s bitter feud with Damascus and open support for opposition fighters box it in. The crisis has blocked Turkey’s main trade routes to the Arab world and opened a new front in its Kurdish problem. Whereas Turkey in 2008 was praised for its ability to speak to all regional players from Israel to Iran, it has now aligned predominantly with conservative Sunni Muslim partners such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. New threats from Syria and Iran have persuaded it to revitalise security ties, albeit partially, with its U.S. and EU partners. Turkey is seen increasingly as a partisan actor. While Turkish leaders claim it has sufficient resources to be the region’s main power, leverage over Syrian events is clearly limited.
For now, the greatest challenge is Syrian refugees, most of whom are in Turkish border provinces, nearly half in seventeen camps, the rest in towns and villages. Turkey has spent $750 million so far, but has only received $100 million of international aid due to disagreements with donors. 100,000 of Syrians are now stuck in insecure, miserable conditions on the Syrian side of the border, and the UN predicts the total number of those fleeing could double or triple this year. Opposition fighters and Syrians with passports can cross the border freely, but Ankara allows incoming refugees only when there is room in camps. With international funding, new camps should be built well away from the border.
For now, several camps and the areas around them are frequently used by Syrian opposition fighters, in large part Sunni Muslim, as off-duty resting places to visit their families, receive medical services and purchase supplies. This is exacerbating sensitive ethnic and sectarian balances, particularly in Hatay province, where more than one third of the population is of Arab Alevi descent and directly related to Syria’s Alawites. The Turkish authorities have so far defused tensions in Hatay that had peaked with demonstrations in September 2012. Much of the problem appears to be based on misperceptions and fears – including probably exaggerated reports that rival communities are arming – that should be tackled with greater openness and engagement. Ankara should also continue to ensure that Syrian opposition fighters do not congregate in Alevi areas and its collective centres are not used as rear bases.
Ideally the Syrians’ problems should be dealt with in Syria, as Turkey wishes, but aid agencies cannot easily transport in supplies. Syria bars direct shipments, forcing most international aid to submit to its sovereign control and thus minimising how much reaches opposition-controlled areas. Turkey has restrictive rules that hold up registration of most major foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and slow foreign shipments of aid through its border points. The “zero point” deliveries of aid to be picked up by Syrian counterparts at the border are still inadequate, but, in the absence of full cross-border access, should be improved and scaled up. To help, Turkey should streamline its regulations, which would also improve its own ability to assist, monitor and control.
In a rare show of unity on Syria, the UN Security Council on 18 April underlined the need to facilitate humanitarian assistance through the most effective ways, including where appropriate across borders. It supported the call by several UN agencies to all parties to ensure the safe and unimpeded access of aid organisations in all areas of Syria. Aid agencies are wary of operating openly in the north, due not only to Damascus’s opposition to any loosening of its control of borders and its ruthless attacks on civilians, but also because of the disorganisation and kidnappings in opposition-held areas. The agencies that choose to follow the humanitarian imperative should not face additional obstacles to reaching the desperately needy in the north. With stalemate the most likely medium-term outlook for Syria, the Security Council and UN agencies should follow up its statement in discussions with the Syrian government and neighbouring countries, including Turkey, to design a cross-border UN humanitarian operation.
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
More broadly, Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria. Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would likewise do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey, in particular to Hatay province. (…)