What has been lost in the focus on U.S. foreign policy are the 3.6 million Syrian refugees that reside in Turkey — the highest number of refugees hosted by any country in the world. The growing public dissatisfaction in Turkey with the presence of Syrian refugees is key to understanding the decision to launch the operation in Syria — an operation that aims at establishing a safe zone where the refugees can be resettled. The domestic politics in Turkey are critical to understanding the impetus for the operation.
The logic behind Turkey’s operation in Syria
Despite the controversy over the legitimacy of resettling mostly Arab Syrian refugees in an area of Syria that is predominantly Kurdish, many in Turkey find this idea appealing. According to one poll from July, more than 80 percent of Turks want to send Syrian refugees back to Syria.
The Turkish public has turned against the refugees, with two-thirds openly saying they are opposed to their continued presence in Turkey. Even among supporters of the ruling AK Party — who tend to be the most supportive of hosting refugees — 59 percent indicate that they are dissatisfied with the current refugee policy. It is not surprising that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is justifying the Turkish operation by arguing that nearly 1 million refugees would relocate to the safe zone. He has also threatened to send refugees to Europe, if the European Union criticizes the operation.
Do concerns over refugees make Turks support intervention?
In June 2014, we conducted a survey-experiment in southeast Turkey with 1,200 respondents to study how Syrian refugees in Turkey affected the attitudes of locals across a range of issues. At the time of our survey, there were 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, with most of them concentrated in border provinces. Today, the number of Syrian refugees exceeds 3.6 million, and they are present in almost every province of Turkey. Our findings were published in the Journal of Peace Research and in the journal of Political Geography.
The results of these studies provide several key insights into the current domestic politics of the Turkish operations.
We found that the majority of respondents did not support military engagement in Syria: 54 percent opposed the use of force to establish a safe zone, and more than 60 percent were against supporting the Syrian opposition or using force to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Only 34 percent supported the use of force to establish a safe zone. A majority — 51 percent — were in favor of staying away from the Syrian conflict altogether, with 34 percent opposing this policy and the rest being neutral.
Despite the lack of majority backing for military intervention in 2014, we discovered that several factors increase public support for such intervention.
We presented our respondents with different messages about the possible effects of hosting refugees: increased economic burden, disruption of the ethnic balance in Turkey and ties with rebels, as well as a positive message of saving innocent Syrian women and children. These messages echoed elite cues as they appeared in the Turkish media at that time.
We found that information that some of the refugees may have connection with Syrian rebel groups made Turkish respondents who live farther from the border more supportive of intervention. They became more supportive of using force to remove Assad, of establishing a safe zone and of assisting rebels in Syria. This finding is especially important because most Turkish residents live far from the Syrian border, and our research shows that they become more supportive of intervention when they receive messages of potential connection between refugees and militants.
This information, however, had no effect on respondents residing by the border. Those respondents are more hesitant to support intervention, even following information about possible ties between refugees and militants.
Respondents close to the border are more likely to be exposed to the fallout from Turkish military intervention in Syria (e.g. shelling, additional refugees, etc.), and these concerns make them hesitant to support an operation even when informed about potential risks of hosting refugees. Such fallouts are already felt in areas adjacent to the Syrian border.
Intervention to boost support?
Erdogan and the ruling AKP recently suffered a major setback at the polls. They lost the repeat election for mayor of Istanbul in June 2019. The vote was a stinging rebuke to Erdogan, who began his career as mayor of Istanbul. High-ranking dissent and dissatisfaction within the AKP mean Erdogan and his allies need to be even more sensitive to shifts in public opinion.
As anger toward refugees is building within Turkey, the government is further restricting refugees in Istanbul. They have set a deadline for unregistered refugees to leave the city. The establishment of a safe zone is another popular policy that Erdogan can play to placate the public at a time when the Turkish economy is facing significant difficulties.
A recent public opinion poll suggests that the Turkish public is increasingly in favor of intervention. In a 2019 poll conducted by Kadir Has University, more than 51 percent of respondents supported Turkey’s cross-border military operation, and only 42 percent were in favor of remaining neutral and not intervening at all in Syria. These levels of support for intervention are higher than what we and the German Marshall Fund survey found in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Notwithstanding the pressure to support the operation, the latest polling data show overwhelming support for the intervention in Syria. It also has the added benefit of getting rid of the PKK’s allies. While many want to focus on Trump foreign policy via Twitter fiat, the real driver of Turkey’s Syrian intervention is its own domestic politics.
Anna Getmansky is an assistant professor in the department of international relations at London School of Economics and Political Science.
Tolga Sinmazdemir is a senior lecturer in the department of politics and international studies at SOAS University of London.
Thomas Zeitzoff is an associate professor in the school of public affairs at American University.