During the last month, the Turkish press has been focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, and the resurgence of clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK. The growing turmoil surrounding these two issues stands as a major challenge to the Turkish government since it has found itself void of any real answers on how to handle them.
Almost two weeks ago, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, campaigned the UN Security Council to set up a buffer zone in Syria in order to stem the flow of refugees to Turkey. Currently, there are approximately 80,000 refugees located in 11 camps situated along Turkey's southern borders, coming in close second after Jordan as the country which has the most Syrians (see UN report dated 07/00/2012). Davutoglu's proposal however fell on deaf ears with only five Foreign Ministers of the 15 council members taking part and all parties involved declaring the plan as unrealistic. For Turkey, whose influence in the Middle East has been growing since the downfall of dictatorships in the Arab world, this was a major disappointment and a diplomatic fiasco.
A few days following the meeting in New York, Turkey started turning refugees away with many stranded at the border. It is reported that approximately 10,000 people are waiting to enter Turkey, with Turkish authorities announcing that they will only be able to cross the border after the needed facilities are available (see above UN report). In one case, a woman was allowed to give birth in a Turkish hospital but after two days was forced to return to trepid conditions on the Syrian side with her newly born twins. In addition to these refugees, thousands of Syrians have entered Turkey as tourists, possessing the necessary resources to live in hotels. In Istanbul alone, there are many Syrians who are waiting for the day they are able to return home. For some, Turkey is only a base to move on to Europe, with some opting to be smuggled out. However this also can end in tragedy. Last week, a boat smuggling refugees sank off the Turkish coast, killing over 60, including many women and children.
Lastly, Turkish opposition members have accused the Turkish government of allowing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to train in the Apaydin camp, which is housing Syrian soldiers and officers who have defected. While the government denies that this camp is used as a base to launch attacks on Syrian army strongholds, members of the FSA have suggested otherwise. Many reports in the Turkish press have focused on the fighters’ radical Islamic elements, claiming that this camp is also home to al-Qaeda and jihadist factions. They are right to be concerned if it is true that the camp might also be home to radicals from such places as Chechnya andAfghanistan. In fact, even if these groups are making leeway on the ground, we must not forget the fact that Syrians from all sects and religions support the uprising and the continued use of radical groups as fighters will only come back and hit the region like a boomerang.
It is in the above context that many Turkish pundits are worried about how the continued struggle in Syria will influence events in Turkey. Less than a month ago, a bomb went off in the southern city of Gaziantep, killing eight people, including children. While the PKK first denied their involvement all evidence points towards to it as the culprit and no evidence of Syrian involvement was uncovered. In any case, it sent a clear message that violence like a brush fire could easily jump over the border. Further, this summer the PKK has also shown Turkey that they are stronger than many might have previously assessed, carrying out significant raids on Turkish military and police outposts. Lately, the Turkish evening news and newspapers have been filled with pictures of young soldiers who have fallen victim to this decades-old conflict.
Since coming to power in 2003, Prime Minister Erdogan has taken serious measures at solving the Kurdish issue. However, since last year’s elections, he has found himself at odds with the mostly Kurdish parliamentarians representing the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and both sides seem farther than ever at reaching a compromise. This was exactly the message the BDP parliament members were sending Erdogan, when they were photographed embracing PKK fighters in the hills of the southeast. Outraging the PM, he is now making calls to renounce their political immunity in hopes they will be tried in a court for supporting a terrorist organization. However, such a move will only alienate a larger part of the Kurdish population. With Syria on the brink of political fallout, which could lead to even more violence and chaos than we have seen until now, Turkey needs more than ever to diffuse the situation in its southeastern regions.