Open arms, iron fists
As Syrian communities grew more deeply embedded within Turkey, Erdogan and the AKP faced a dilemma: How to graft some semblance of order onto millions of displaced people without normalizing their presence? The answer hinged on two seemingly contradictory policies. On one side, the Turkish authorities strengthened their ties to elite segments of Syrian society, through naturalization. On the other, they rolled back the freedoms that Turkey had granted to other Syrians—leaving them stranded in a gray zone shaped by increasingly restrictive, repressive policies.
At the heart of Turkey’s ambivalent approach is the abstruse legal regime governing the Syrian presence. Having been denied refugee status, most Syrians fall under Turkey’s law on temporary protection. This framework entitles forcibly displaced persons to safe harbor, access to public education and healthcare, and pro forma guarantees against involuntary repatriation. It does not, however, allow Syrians to work without a permit, which the vast majority struggle to secure; they therefore work illegally, in the many farms and factories of the underground economy. Nor can Syrians own property in their own name, leading some to open corporate entities with the express purpose of buying a home.
Over the years, the term “temporary protection” has acquired a Kafkaesque ring: As the Syrian presence in Turkey becomes less temporary, their status also seems ever less protective. In 2015, Turkish authorities first required that those with temporary protection obtain permission before traveling outside the governorate in which they originally registered. Syrians who had relocated from one province to another, for professional reasons or to be with family, suddenly found themselves outside the law, liable to be fined and deported to their place of registration. Many therefore limit their movements for fear of a chance run-in with the police.
Yet it was not until summer 2019 that state pressure on Syrians reached full force. Following local elections in which opposition parties attacked the AKP’s open-door policy, Erdogan sought to toughen his government’s image. The Ministry of Interior launched a sweeping campaign to round up Syrians without proper documentation. Hundreds, if not thousands, were detained and expelled back to Syria. Many were forced to sign Turkish-language agreements in which they surrendered their temporary protected status, thus “voluntarily” submitting to refoulment. “I know two guys who were deported despite having their paperwork in order,” said a university student in southern Turkey. “Their entire building, with some forty Syrian residents, was deported, for reasons no one understood. Maybe they just annoyed the neighbors, or one of them was selling drugs.”
The crackdown was part of Turkey's increasingly security-centric approach
The crackdown was part and parcel of Turkey’s increasingly aggressive, security-centric approach to managing the Syrian presence—both within the country and along its border. In 2018, Ankara had already trumpeted the completion of a concrete and razor-wire wall: Funded by the European Union, it now stretches for 764 kilometers across Turkey’s once porous southern frontier. Border guards are known to fire on Syrians attempting to cross into the country, while beating and deporting those who reach Turkish soil. In parallel, the authorities have tightened their grip over international and Syrian NGOs implementing Western-funded aid programs. Organizations are visited by the police, and sometimes shuttered for failure to comply with byzantine legal structures. “In just a couple of years, we’ve gone from a laissez-faire policy to one of almost total control,” said a Syrian NGO director, who was about to relocate his activities from Turkey to Europe.
But just as Turkey was rounding up one subset of Syrians, it was turning tens of thousands of others into Turkish citizens. In late 2016, Erdogan introduced a plan to grant nationality to “highly qualified people […] engineers, lawyers, doctors.” Ankara did so through a murky process in which the state discretionarily invites Syrians to apply for citizenship. While selection rules are opaque, every Syrian knows who stands the best chances: namely university students, business owners, and professionals from selected fields. Naturalization has thus served as a tool for absorbing the most desirable Syrians into Turkish society; it also incentivizes non-naturalized Syrians to enroll in universities or open tax-paying businesses.
By the time deportations ramped up mid-2019, the Turkish government estimated that it had doled out over 90,000 passports. For their Syrian recipients, citizenship solved some of Turkey’s thorniest problems: enabling them to work legally, move freely, own property, and begin to plan for the future. For many, however, the procedure has proved so opaque as to feel like one more demonstration of arbitrary power. “Some people get invited within their first two years in Turkey, while others have been here for five or six years and never got nominated,” said a journalist from rural Damascus living in Istanbul. Active applications sometimes drag on for years. In some instances, Turkish authorities announced that hundreds of applications had been deleted due to vague technical malfunctions.
For Turkish authorities, naturalization is just one tactic among others for coopting Syrians they deem useful. In extreme cases, the process amounts to weaponization: Turkish security agencies cultivate a network of Syrian proxy militias who serve as agents of Ankara’s military policy in northern Syria and other conflict zones, namely Libya and the Caucasus. More banal forms of cooptation target Syrians in key spheres such as business and the NGO sector—particularly in southern cities like Urfa and Gaziantep, where the Syrian presence is densest. Many Syrians, too, actively seek to build relationships with Turkish officials. A former NGO worker described the quid pro quo he observed in Gaziantep:
The wali [governor] periodically organizes meetings with representatives of the Syrian community. I think he mostly does this to make Syrians feel they have some representation, and limit potential friction. Of course, it’s also a way of infiltrating the Syrian community. Syrians compete over access to such meetings: Connection to the wali might help with your citizenship application, facilitate your business, or assist if you run into problems with some government body.
Such access, indeed, has become vitally important to navigating an ever changing bureaucratic and legal environment. “The law’s implementation is all based on the individual clerk you’re dealing with,” said a Syrian consultant who knows better than most how to run the bureaucratic gauntlet, yet still faces endless obstacles in keeping his one-man business afloat. In his position, the surest path to success is to cultivate allies within the Turkish power structure: “The most successful Syrian organizations are the ones that have developed the right connections.”