This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, Turkey Trip Summary.
The ocean has always been one of my biggest fears. Its depth unfathomable, its breadth unparalleled, with all its 95% still unexplored. Seldom do we fear its power from the safety of land, but standing on Izmir’s coast looking at the Aegean Sea, I was overwhelmed realizing just how many secrets it holds. This was the same sea that had become a graveyard for those desperate enough to face its angry waves in hopes of coming ashore to a better life, but were swallowed by its waves instead, their names forgotten.
In the past year, over 1 million migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, many of whom did not live to tell the tale . Just 5 years earlier, they had been contributing members of their societies as educators, engineers, scientists, doctors, and various other professions. Mothers, fathers, bearers of generations, children with torn wings and infants less than a year old; these are the stories that will never be told. Before we hypothesize about the dynamics of the refugee crisis, I believe it is important to note that treating the forced displacement of war victims primarily as a security concern is dehumanizing; the aim of this article is not to undermine the refugee struggle, but to identify some of the factors exacerbating the crisis, and obstacles preventing an end to the Syrian conflict.
Since the migrant situation evolved into an “international crisis” this past summer as refugees started crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, it has received much speculation as to what this means for European social security. The discussion has since not been limited to Europe, and has also found its way to the U.S. presidential debate as politicians contest the security risks of admitting war-torn families to a safe haven . But the conflict in Syria has been a global humanitarian crisis, in fact for more than 4 years now, but only accredited as an international burden when refugees started crossing to Europe. It brought the EU to the negotiating table, imploring Turkey to control its gates in exchange for monetary support and reopening the discussion of Turkey’s accession to EU. Turkey’s leaders have not been uncritical of the international community’s approach to the issue either; All the government officials we met with were reproving of what the stakeholders deem most valuable. The Minister to the EU, Volkan Bozkir, asserted that “the problem of Europe is fighting with xenophobia and Islamophobia—Europe cannot stay Christian anymore, the colors are there.” Another government official described the EU’s desire to provide for the Syrians but keep the borders closed as a reflection of a “subconscious attitude”. But while Turkey has been able to navigate its sails in the storm and take in more than 2.5 million refugees, the EU’s platforms are not the only obstacles to bettering the crisis. Turkey’s unshaken pursuance of economic interests in the Middle East region are exacerbating the Syrian conflict, making a long-term solution for the crisis impossible.
When protests broke out in Syria in 2011, no neighboring country projected the conflict to carry out for as long as it has today. Initially, the protests against the Assad regime were seen as another wave of the Arab Spring whose flames were not meant to keep burning. But as the conflict continued and stakeholders multiplied, tensions heightened, as did the stakes of war. When we met with Ibrahim Kalin, the Chief Advisor to Turkey’s Prime Minister, he recounted the days before the conflict heightened and Turkey’s relationship with the Assad regime. “Erdogan used to tell [Assad] to open up, release prisoners, establish relations with Israel, and recognize the Kurds of Syria.” Until 2011, in fact, Erdogan had sent several envoys to Syria to encourage Assad to change his security policies; but Assad did not listen—or may not have had the power to against the Baath party. “It was Ramadhan, and by the end of it he had killed 4,000 people. A few days before UNGA, Turkey cut its ties with the Syrian regime.”
Considering how the conflict has unfolded since, it would be tempting to view the alignment of the conflict’s players as a function of sectarian conflict, at the core of which are the tenants of Shiism and Sunnism. It would make sense, for example, for the Islamic Republic of Iran as a Shia’a majority country to support Iraq and Syria against Turkey, whose current administration has been criticized for Islamizing the secular country with their interpretation of Sunni Islam . But the core of the problem does not lie at the base of sectarian issues; it is the fight for regional influence through the expansion of economic means.
While the history of the region’s sectarian ties plays a role, it is not the main reason for the conflict as conspirators have painted it to be. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey was quick to make ties with the new regimes that had sprung up. In the beginning, it was successful in establishing working relationships with Egypt, which was initially taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi was elected president, along with Libya, when Turkey became the first nation to appoint an ambassador to the new Libyan government. Egypt and Libya are not regions of heavy sectarian violence, yet in order to preserve its regional influence, Turkey saw it in its national interest to build working relationships with the regimes. The notion that the conflict in the Middle East is primarily due to clashing dogmas of Shiism and Sunnism only veils the more tangible, important factors that are prompting action in the region.
Under the veil lies a deeply rooted strategy for preserving economic prowess and dominance. According to multiple sources, Turkey’s hands are not clean from the black market oil trade , oil that is smuggled from Daesh-occupied territories and sold cheap in Turkey’s own markets. It is of the viewpoint of many Iranian politicians that Turkey is further fueling the conflict by strengthening ISIS through the black market oil trade, whose path was carved during Saddam Hussein’s time . It is also believed among Iranian circles that Turkey could be doing more to stop the flow of Daesh recruits to Levant , but Turkey sees it in its interest to further strengthen the opposition against Assad. While not officially confirmed, it is even rumored that Erdogan’s own son is involved with the oil trades. Whether these allegations are true or not have yet to be proven by international agencies, but the allegations may not be as far from the truth as we may think.
Turkey’s pursuance of economic interests regardless of its consequences for the region is not unprecedented. After the first Gulf War, strict UN sanctions on Iraq caused its economy to suffer heavily. In 1996, the UN Food-for-Oil program allowed Saddam Hussein to sell enough oil in order to provide food for the Iraqi population, but Saddam Hussein was able to exploit the program through backchannels. By smuggling oil to Iraq’s neighbors, including Turkey, Saddam was able to illicit more than $8 billion. Turkey purchased cheap oil from Iraq to benefit its national interests despite UN sanctions, and now history may be repeating itself .
In 2011, Turkey made the decision to cut ties with the Assad regime, shifting its sails in a new direction. But the tides may have changed. According to Iranian sources, today more than 80% of the areas not controlled by Assad’s regime are under Daesh rule. As analyzed by a former member of the Iranian parliament, it is difficult to predict any other outcome than Daesh’s rise to power should the Assad regime fall. While the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have recently adopted a softer position regarding Assad’s role in Syria’s future, Turkey is still firm in its anti-Assad stance . Kalin expressed that the “Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis is polarizing the issue,” but this is not a one-sided conflict. As a representative of Turkey’s Directorate of Migration Management exclaimed, the real solution to the refugee crisis is an end to the Syrian conflict. But if it were not for the power struggle of regional influence between Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the conflict would not have been polarized to this extent in the first place. The tipping point is approaching, and stakeholders are shifting their positions with it—but how long will Turkey’s sails hold against the wind?
Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has made admirable efforts in providing humanitarian assistance to the more than 2.5 million refugees it has protected. To this day, it has spent more than $9 billion on Syrian refugees, provided free healthcare, and ratified granting work permits to 50,000 Syrians in January. But the world will not see an end to the crisis if Turkey, and the rest of the players involved, continue exploiting the resources of the region without regard for the needs of the people. There’s only so much that can be sheltered from the storm—what the sea swallows will eventually wash up on shore.