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[Opinion] Syrian civil war gives a lifeline to the Erdoğan regime

Syrians, displaced from Ras al-Ain, a border town controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies, are pictured in the camp of Washukanni in the northeastern Syrian al-Hasakeh governorate, as temperatures soar on June 28, 2021. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Türkmen Terzi 

The Syrian people enduring a 10-year-long civil war are experiencing arguably the worst human tragedy of the 21st century. More than 13 million Syrians remain displaced and are in dire need of humanitarian aid and civil protection. Turkey currently hosts some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees along with more than 300 thousand people of concern from other countries, and the Turkish public has become increasingly xenophobic. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime utilizes these refugees for cheap labor in the country. Turkey also continues to recruit Syrians for its military ambitions while exploiting the economic resources of the northern Syrian town of Afrin.

The “fascist” mayor of Bolu province in northwestern Turkey, Tanju Özcan, who vows to charge Syrians a tenfold fee for water with the intent to force “foreigners” to leave the country, represents an extreme example of the anti-refugee sentiment spreading in Turkey. Influential fashion designer Arzu Sabancı, from one of the wealthiest families in Turkey, publicly expressed anti-refugee sentiment on Telegram, saying: “I don’t want refugees in my country. Say ‘no’ to silent occupation.”

Prof. Dr. Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdoğan who has been instrumental in the design of Turkey’s refugee policies, responded to Mayor Özcan’s anti-refugee sentiment, saying that “employers, investors and industrialists are very satisfied with the Syrians, and if you remove them from some very important workplaces, this country’s economy will collapse.”

Well-known TV personality and journalist Fatih Altaylı accused Yasin Aktay and other ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) members of being “slave traders.” In a column published on Tuesday on, Altaylı said Aktay and other so-called “pro-refugee” people are the real fascists. He highlighted how refugees are forced to live in small and overcrowded houses, earning far less than the minimum wage and without insurance, while living in constant fear that their children may be bought and sold by human traffickers. Altaylı said that AKP officials are not human rights defenders, but rather modern slave traders who treat refugees not as human beings but as cheap labor.

Turkish mafia Boss Sedat Peker detailed how the Erdoğan regime exploits Syria. Peker, who became a YouTube phenomenon with his videos on Turkish politicians, claimed in his eighth video released on May 30 that SADAT, a paramilitary group formed by Erdoğan’s former advisor Adnan Tanrıverdi, sent weapons to al-Nusra in Syria. Peker admitted that his organization sent military equipment, including drones, to Turkmen rebels in Syria’s Bayırbucak region with the permission of the AKP but that he only later became aware that SADAT sent weapons to terrorist groups under his name. The mafia boss detailed how Presidential Director of Administrative Affairs Metin Kıratlı controls billions of dollars-worth of trade including crude oil, tea, sugar and used cars.

Peker is not the first person to have spoken out regarding Turkey’s illegal activities in Syria. Following an incident in which a Turkish air force jet shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24, 2015, Russia’s defense ministry said it had obtained proof that President Erdoğan and his family were benefiting from the illegal smuggling of oil from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-held territory in Syria and Iraq. Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin came to an agreement, and Russia stopped revealing any more details regarding the issue.

Armenian Ambassador to Russia Vardan Toganyan claimed last September that Turkey had deployed around 4,000 Syrian rebel fighters to support its close ally Azerbaijan in its escalating conflict with Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani government denied the allegations. However, a fighter from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA)-affiliated Jaish al-Nukhba militia told Reuters in September that nearly 1,000 Syrians were set to be deployed to Azerbaijan. Two Syrian rebels revealed to Reuters that they were promised earnings of around $1,500 a month by their Syrian brigade commanders.

International media have reported that Turkey deployed hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Syrian fighters in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord to protect Tripoli from the attacks of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces. The UN and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush called for all foreign fighters to leave, including Turkish forces, but Turkey continues to increase its military presence in Libya.

Turkey has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 1984 and trying to prevent a PKK state in Syria. Ankara sees the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as the PKK’s Syrian branch. The PYD’s armed wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), took control of Kurdish-populated areas close to the Turkish borders. Syrian Kurds aim to connect three Kurdish cantons, Cizre in the east on the Iraqi border, Kobani in the center and the westernmost at Afrin. Turkey describes these Kurdish cantons as a terror corridor posing a threat to its national security. The Turkish army together with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group that has been fighting against Bashar al-Assad, had launched the Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria in August 2016 to target ISIL and Kurdish militant groups on the northern Syrian border, finally taking Afrin in March 2018.

By capturing Afrin, Turkey largely prevented Kurdish militias from connecting the Kurdish cantons along its border. The Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV reported that Turkish-backed Syrian groups have been protesting against Ankara in Afrin for either not paying their salaries or for paying as little as $50. A 63-year-old Kurdish woman, Leila Mohammed Ahmed, who was released by the Sultan Murad Brigade after paying a bribe, told news website Al Monitor that Turkish-backed SNA brigades continue to commit serious human rights violations including rape, kidnappings and ethnic cleansing in Afrin. She also accused them of recruiting child soldiers for Turkey’s forays into Libya and Azerbaijan.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly stated that his party will send Syrians back home, fomenting more xenophobia among the Turkish people. Top Turkish generals opposed Turkey’s military operations in Syria, but Erdoğan has removed these high-ranking army officers since the mysterious July 15, 2016 coup attempt, while his parallel army SADAT continues recruiting Syrian soldiers. Syria has become a fertile ground for Erdoğan, who steals Syrians’ oil, olives, wheat and even youths to implement his expansionist foreign policy in the region. While Erdoğan’s family and the regime’s elite benefit from the plight of  Syrians, it is ultimately the ordinary Turkish citizen who will bear the strain of the influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

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