Syria’s ongoing civil war has increasingly threatened to engulf countries beyond its borders and, as the flood of refugees fleeing the country has broadened and deepened, will continue to raise pressure on neighboring governments. The diplomatic fiasco Turkey found itself facing Thursday, after its government allegedly deported hundreds of Syrian refugees from a border camp, is just the most recent example of this.
Ankara has emphatically denied reports that it forcibly expelled 600-700 people at the Suleymansah camp located near its border with Syria. Accounts from refugees at the camp allege that Turkish guards rounded up camp residents suspected of involvement in a violent altercation with military police following a protest about unsafe living conditions at the camp on Wednesday. Guards then allegedly bussed the suspects and their families to the border with Syria — a charge that has already unleashed a torrent of criticism from the United Nations, which regards forcible deportations as a breach of its conventions. The Turkish foreign ministry, wary of the potential negative diplomatic consequences of the charges, has been attempting to push a different narrative of events: playing down the numbers of refugees sent away while also (somewhat contradictorily) claiming they left voluntarily.
The incident is representative of the tenuous position Syria’s neighbors find themselves facing as they allow hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians entry through their borders — Turkey alone has played host to 261,000 refugees — while also preserving their own, often delicate, political and security situations. Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq have also faced similar challenges (with Jordan recently even suppressing a riot at one of its refugee camps). Turkey, better equipped to field the flood of refugees than Syria’s other neighbors, has still found itself in an unenviable position. It has had a prominent voice in the conflict since its beginning, vocally backing the opposition in Syria and championing international efforts to broker a solution. Its open borders to refugees fleeing the country (along with its implicit support for opposition fighters operating from within its borders) have represented its commitment to the Syrian people and their efforts to depose their autocratic ruler. This makes allegations that it forcibly repatriated refugees doubly damaging to its reputation.
But now, of all moments, Turkey cannot risk inflaming tensions within its own borders, especially in light of its own recent security challenges — though the issue will only become more serious as the nation fields even more refugees (with dwindling resources to host them), a prospect that has Ankara on edge. Aside from its pioneering support role in the Syrian conflict, Ankara’s ongoing peace talks with the PKK, along with its recent diplomatic reconciliation with Israel, highlight the seriousness of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions in the region. Which makes the expulsion look like the product of a calculus that has given the edge for now to those ambitions — it could even be seen as an attempt at throwing red meat to the section of Tayyip Erdogan’s base outraged by the PKK talks. But an expulsion policy — should it become policy — will offer severely diminishing returns as refugee outflows continue and the Syrian stalemate goes on. And on.