Conflict between Kurds and Syrian Refugees in Turkey?

by Robert Olson

An estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. They are scattered all over Turkey including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and along the southern coast. There are also 600,000-700,000 in refugee camps. Increasingly, these refugees from Syria are coming into conflict with Kurds in Turkey.

The major bone of contention is Turkey’s purported intention to settle some of the refugees in largely Kurdish regions, alarming Kurds who are still living with the consequences of Turkey’s ethnic cleansing operations in the 1990s. Even more frightening to Kurds is that Turkey has renewed such practices in its recent war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurds in the southeast, killing 5,000 Kurds and displacing 200,000 more.

The displacement of Kurds last month became an issue of debate in the Turkish parliament. Sezkin Tanrikulu, a Republican Peoples Party (CHP) MP and former head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, asked Parliament Speaker Ismail Kahraman whether the state intended to settle 27,000 refugees in the southeast province of Kahramanmaras, adjacent to 24 Kurdish Alevi villages.

Ibrahim Incoglu, head of the Alevi Cultural Association, emphasized that Kurdish Alevis were not opposed to the refugees per se but feared that the Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra militants would “infiltrate the camps and harm the Alevis in the region.”

The leadership of the PKK and its political arm, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), as well as the Alevis in the region, had good reason to worry. The U.S. has announced that it would deploy High Artillery Rock System (HIMARS) missile defense system in southeast Turkey in mid-August. Italy’s SAMP-T missile system was deployed on June 20 in the province of Kahramanmarash, with two of the batteries already coming online. The PKK/KCK leadership is concerned that NATO forces might well help Turkey in some way to settle refugees in the province, thus becoming complicit in any displacement of Kurds.

Cemil Bayik, co-president of KCK and a top PKK commander, stated categorically that neither the PKK/KCK nor the Kurds would stand for such a policy of genocide. He said that the state’s plan to settle Syrian refugees among Kurds has been a time-honored state practice to settle refugees from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia within Kurdistan. “What this says loud and clear is that we [the state] intend to finish you [Kurds] off. What Kurd would accept this?” said Bayik. “Any Kurd who accepts this would be complicit in genocide; he would be committing suicide. Turkey cannot disguise this genocidal policy by declaring concern for Syrian refugees.” Bayik proposed refugee resettlement instead in the Black Sea, Thrace, Aegean, Mediterranean, or inner Anatolian regions.

Kurdish fears were raised further by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) plan to grant citizenship to at least some of the refugees, despite opposition from the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the National Action Party (MHP). MHP MP Mehmet Gunal questioned whether that AKP proposal had something to do with the planned renewal of relations between Turkey and Russia:

We are wondering whether this [citizenship] issue is part of the negotiations. Is there something else behind the scenes of the deals done with Russia and Israel? That’s what we thought when this issue came to the agenda in such a rush. Syria needs to normalize. Some of the Syrians need to go back. If you start talking about this, even those who are planning to go back, won’t go back. It was wrong in terms of substance and timing.

RPP General Secretary Kamil Oktay Sindir objected to the AKP plan of granting citizenship to those Syrians considered “qualified” workers:

This means that you are discriminating and treating a refugee as someone to benefit from. We have many unemployed qualified workers in all fields. When we have so many jobless qualified people in health, engineering, and several other areas where we lack human resources, the government is trying to push the argument that the Syrian refugees will provide the human resources. This is not acceptable. We should not compromise human rights and freedoms on domestic issues or on the Syrian refugees.

Between January and July, Turkey issued 38,261 work permits for foreigners; 5,502 permits went to Syrians, many of them with university degrees. Now, instead of facilitating Syrians with university degrees from emigrating to Europe, Turkey would like to retain them in order to increase its technological and industrial-based sectors.

Neither the RPP nor MHP deputies mentioned the AKP plan to settle Syrian refuges in predominantly Kurdish regions in the southeast in order to demographically redistribute Kurdish and Alevi populations, cleanse the Kurdish population adjacent to the Turkish-Syrian border, weaken the PKK/KCK, and foster stronger relations between the Kurds in Rojava and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani, which closely cooperates with the U.S. on myriad issues.

These developments would strengthen further Turkey’s and the AKP’s plan to become the dominant geopolitical and economic power in northern Syria and among the Sunni Arabs in central Iraq after the collapse of IS.

Photo: Syrian refugees near the Turkish border (Freedom House via Flickr).

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.