The war will go on for Syria – and Turkey

Latest atrocities in northern Syria raise few eyebrows among Syrians or local Turks in southern Turkey.

2015/07/10 Issue: 13 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

There is no indication the Syrian civil war is slowing down. Syrian refugees — several hundred of whom recently headed from Akcakale in Turkey to ruined homes in Tal Abyad, a short walk across the border — are tired and unpresumptuous about what help to expect from whom. There is little space for illusions, hope or ideals in this dusty, hard-scrabble border town.

They know Islamic State (ISIS) militants would likely slaughter them for simply being found in Tal Abyad, which Kurdish militias won back from the jihadist group in June. They know the Turkish government’s fear of cross-border Kurdish nationalism is stronger than its desire to bomb the positions of Syrian military or ISIS, whom Ankara oppose to various degrees.

But most importantly, they know that their families are suffering in 40-degree Celsius heat while keeping the Ramadan fast.

The latest atrocities in northern Syria — 143 civilians reportedly killed on June 25th by ISIS in the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobani — raise few eyebrows among Syrians or local Turks in southern Turkey, home to more displaced Syrians than anywhere else.

The Syria disaster has been a boon for many Turks. Anyone owning property to rent or sell or involved in the construction business has made money.

Local farmers and manufactur­ers have taken advantage of cheap and desperate Syrian labour to get crops sowed and harvested, pocketing the difference.

Some Syrians in Urfa, a modern Turkish city of almost 850,000 about 50 kilometres from the border, are experiencing a new life: sleek malls sell affordable clothing, a multitude of Syrian cafés and restaurants mean they need not learn Turkish and there’s a level of respect — a functioning social contract — between the individual and the state absent in Syria either before or since the 2011 revolution, that breeds contentment.

For many other Syrians, of course, malls and cafés are out of reach and the nightmare in Syria for the past four years is now a new nightmare in a strange country.

While Turkey is clearly changing the outlook of many Syrians, are Turks, in return, being affected by their Syrian guests? The obvious answer lies in the predominance and growth of Turkish jihadists marching into Syria to join ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch.

Research suggests that more than 1,000 Turkish nationals have been attracted to jihadist convic­tions in Syria. Furthermore, some Turks have become experts in weapons smuggling. It is an easy way of making large amounts of money quickly and is an industry that will persist long after peace is reached in Syria.

Politically, there’s a new, major spanner in the works of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s legacy plans. It appeared in the shape of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose base support is centred on border regions.

In the June 7th parliamentary election, the HDP drew away from Erdogan’s Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP) a majority of the rural, conservative Kurdish vote in the borderlands. That helped scupper Erdogan’s plans to change Turkey’s system of governance from a parliamentary to a presi­dential system.

For the wider international community, and Western govern­ments in particular, perhaps the best course of action for Syria has been the one followed thus far: a hands-off, “let them go it alone” approach.

Western military adventures in the Middle East are synonymous with disaster.

With the region aflame from Yemen to Iraq to Tunisia, the last thing Middle Eastern populations need is a foreign imperialist power at full flow again. Bombing to oblivion the Syrian government’s military and ISIS, thus handing the keys of the Syrian kingdom to the revolutionaries and their Turkish and Gulf sponsors, would simply precipitate a new conflict involv­ing old players.

It may sound callous but, as Syrians opposing dictatorship and fundamentalism are finding out, few things easy are worth doing at all and that’s why they most fight this fight alone.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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