Ghosts of the Future

Fears of a Phantom Referendum Haunt the Turkish-Syrian Border

by Noga Malkin , Nick Danforth | published October 24, 2014

For background, see Aslı Ilgit and Rochelle Davis, “The Many Roles of Turkey in the Syrian Crisis,” Middle East Report Online, January 28, 2013.

Hatay -- a Turkish province on the border with Syria that is now flooded with Syrian refugees -- has a special status in Turkey. In the words of a Syrian doctor to whom we spoke in the summer of 2014 and who failed to get a residency permit to live there, “It’s like [the province] is not exactly part of Turkey yet.” The doctor, a refugee for the past three years, explained that according to a secret international agreement, the province’s final status is to be determined by a referendum in 2039, a century after a complex population registry commonly thought of as a plebiscite ceded the area to Turkey. Clearly, the doctor went on, the Turkish government fears that if too many Syrians settle in Hatay, they will one day vote to join Syria and Turkey will lose a piece of its territory.

Historically, this rumor is completely unfounded. The province of Hatay is legally no different from the provinces of Ankara or Izmir in the eyes of the Turkish government. There will be no referendum in 2039 to determine its fate. And yet the territory does have a unique history that indeed gives it a special status in the minds of Turks and Syrians alike, and which has in turn given rise to popular fables such as the one shared by the Syrian doctor. In 1938 residents of the province, which for almost two decades had been part of France’s Syrian mandate, were required to register by ethnicity in order to determine the composition of a local parliament. The choice of ethnicity -- principally between the categories of “Arab” and “Turkish” -- was seen as tantamount to a referendum on the province’s fate, as the ethnic group with a parliamentary majority could then move that the province join Syria or Turkey, respectively. The Turkish army was already in the province when the registration occurred, however, and in keeping with a secret agreement with France used bribes and violence to ensure that the hotly contested process would tip Turkey’s way. The result was Turkey’s formal annexation of the region in 1939.

Many Syrian nationalists felt bitterly betrayed by the French, and for years portrayed the province as part of Syria on official maps. Such claims have created a particular sensitivity toward the region in Turkey, compounded by the fact that Hatay is one of the few places in the country where Turkish citizens regularly speak Arabic on the street. That many of these Arabic-speaking Turkish citizens are also, like the Asad family, members of the ‘Alawi faith has only heightened sensitivity among those Turks already inclined to be suspicious of linguistic and religious minorities. (Considerable confusion arises from the fact that the same Turkish word, Alevis, is used to refer both to the Arabic-speaking Nusayri ‘Alawis and the country’s much larger population of Turkish or Kurdish-speaking heterodox Alevis. The two faiths are similar, and the two communities often express a shared political identity, but they also stress key theological differences.)

It was against this backdrop that violent anti-Syrian protests erupted late in the summer, with Hatay residents attacking refugees’ cars and shops. Widespread rumors of a 2039 referendum, which are cited by Turkish citizens as often as they are by Syrian refugees, offer a way to understand this unrest and provide a window into the growing divisions within Turkey -- over religious identity, Syrian refugees and the wisdom of the government’s Syria policy.

An Ambiguous Welcome

Since the first Syrians entered Turkey in April 2011 -- crossing into Hatay’s Yayladağı district -- their numbers have exceeded the 1 million mark, approaching, according to some estimates, 2 million. Turkey does not grant refugee status to Syrians, having kept in place the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention restricting that status to people fleeing European countries. Instead, it places those fleeing the crisis under a “temporary protection regime” meant to provide some of the rights to which they would have access were they officially recognized as refugees. About 20 percent of the Syrians in Turkey live in 22 camps set up by the Turkish government, but the rest have taken shelter in cities, mostly along the border.

A new law governing migration to Turkey went into effect in April 2014. It provides, for the first time, a legal basis for temporary protection. The regulation on temporary protection, published on October 22, details some of the rights that will be granted to those under this new regime, which include protection from refoulement (forcible return to the conflict zone) and replaces the identification cards provided by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) with temporary protection identification documents. These papers will provide exemption from fees for primary and emergency health care and the respective treatment and medication, the right to psychosocial services, the right to education for children aged 33 months and above, the possibility to apply for work permits in certain sectors and regions, and access to other services.

The new system is still in flux, however, as Turkish ministries are expected to issue more decrees specifying the precise rights those under temporary protection will have. It further remains unclear how long it will be until the new provisions are applied. Under the old system of AFAD identification cards, Syrians got access to basic services. Those with passports could also receive permits for one-year residency (ikamet). The residency papers allow Syrians living outside of camps to register their children in state schools. The documents also make it possible to apply for work authorization, giving Syrians access to employment, insurance and the right to open legal businesses. As many Syrians have discovered, however, two of Turkey’s 81 provinces do not grant them residency permits. Hatay is one of the two.

In Hatay, the 140,923 Syrians registered with AFAD constitute 9 percent of the province’s population, although the number of unregistered and undocumented is reportedly much higher. Syrians continue to settle in Hatay despite document controls that restrict employment and education. For many, the Arabic-language networks prevalent in the area are a major factor; because of the region’s history a large proportion of Turkish citizens living there still speak Arabic at home. Proximity to Syria is another reason, allowing refugees to move between their country of asylum and their homes, to visit families, check on properties and lands, or engage in smuggling in this harsh economic climate.

But these, of course, are the very linguistic and geographic factors reflected in Turkish residents’ parallel fears of a phantom referendum. In a country long sensitive about its territorial integrity, where for decades British pensioners were forbidden from buying summer homes within sight of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, the presence of too many Arab Syrians could certainly be seen as diluting the already contested “Turkishness” of the border region.

Pre-Existing Divisions

Turkish citizens in Hatay are also fond of invoking conspiracies about the province’s 2039 referendum. But they do so with very different agendas from the refugees, and sometimes from one another.

Before many ‘Alawis in Hatay began to worry about Sunni, anti-Asad refugees, or more recently the Islamic State, some Sunni ethnic Turks living in Hatay worried that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad himself was secretly sending money to members of the province’s Arabic-speaking ‘Alawi community so they could buy up land there. In a twist on conspiracy theories widespread in Istanbul -- that Greeks are covertly reclaiming Constantinople by purchasing houses in the city -- some interviewees suggested that in the putative coming referendum voting rights would be connected to land ownership. In this version Asad and his ‘Alawi allies were literally laying the groundwork for reclaiming Hatay well before the current civil war.

Many of Hatay’s ‘Alawis, meanwhile, worry that Turkey’s government views them as a suspect heterodox minority, and that the government is working with conservative Sunni refugees to strip ‘Alawis of the political and economic rights they acquired over the last half-century. Many ‘Alawis, despite proudly proclaiming their Arab ethnicity, have nonetheless been drawn to Turkish nationalism due to its heavily secular component, which appeals to them as a religious minority. Some champion Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as their community’s savior, claiming that his enlightened policies saved them from religious persecution and gave them the right to own land in the first place. And, reflecting this narrative, many ‘Alawis also insist that in 1938 the community’s ideological commitment to Kemalism was reflected in the fact that many registered as “Turks,” in essence voting for Hatay to join Turkey. (Historical sources suggest that registration patterns were not so clear. [1]) Many ‘Alawis go on to argue that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s more Islamist government has consistently favored the region’s Sunni residents, awarding contracts to pious cronies and even restructuring the local government in Antakya, Hatay’s major city, to reduce the impact of ‘Alawi votes. In this context, ‘Alawis have long expressed concern over the hostility directed at them by radicalized Syrian opposition fighters, whom they see as fundamentalist, anti-‘Alawi rebels backed by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, that Erdoğan heads.

Ironies of ‘Alawi History

At the same time, the way ‘Alawis explain their community’s growing financial success acknowledges that the narrative of inclusive secular Kemalism versus the AKP’s exclusionary Islamism is rife with ironies: Over the last half-century ‘Alawis indirectly benefited both from the Kemalist state’s persecution of religious minorities and from the AKP’s supposedly “Islamist” policies.

Acutely sensitive when others suggest their wealth is a product of Asad’s largesse, the ‘Alawis emphasize instead a rags-to-riches story beginning with working on the estates of landowners who treated them like feudal serfs. According to this narrative, many ‘Alawis got their first breaks as employees or co-workers of the region’s wealthy Christian community, who, they insist, were more likely to trust them as fellow members of a religious minority. Many of these Christians, particularly Armenians, fled to Syria with the Turkish annexation in 1939. Those Christians who stayed past that date were on the wrong side of the Kemalist state’s often oppressive quest for national homogeneity, and in time many more of them left. As members of the ‘Alawi community tell it, those fleeing often preferred to sell their holdings to ‘Alawi partners since the alternative was to hand the property over at a discount to members of the Sunni Turkish majority that had driven them out.

In the 1970s and 1980s many members of the ‘Alawi community went abroad, using their Arabic language skills to find work as chauffeurs or kebab sellers in the Gulf at the height of the oil boom. When Erdoğan set out to improve Turkey’s ties to the Arab world -- widely cited as one of his signature Islamist policies -- many ‘Alawis were ideally positioned to benefit, using the capital and networks they had developed in the Gulf, their family ties in Syria, Turkish education and bilingualism to profit from Turkey’s burgeoning trade with the Middle East.

While the ‘Alawi community’s support for Asad -- real, though often exaggerated -- leads some in Turkey to accuse them of disloyalty, it is striking that the Asad regime’s efforts to cultivate political support among the ‘Alawi community have, historically, been a dismal failure. In order to gain leverage in disputes with Turkey, including those over the province of Hatay, Hafiz al-Asad long supported violent Kurdish separatist groups. With but a few exceptions, ‘Alawis never showed any interest in rejoining Syria, much less fighting to do so. Among other factors, the ‘Alawi community’s economic success and land ownership, particularly striking in contrast to the country’s Kurdish regions, gave the community a stake in being Turkish. (Asked about his devotion to Atatürk, for example, one man we spoke to pointed to his computer and said, “You think they have those in Syria?”) What is more, today it is the most prosperous members of the ‘Alawi community that still support the AKP, drawn by its pro-business, pro-trade policies, while much of the rest of the community is drawn to the opposition CHP’s secularism and left-wing economic ideas.

To add another irony to this complex configuration, several sources argue that the real reason the AKP government seeks to prevent Syrians from settling in Hatay is to avoid further tensions between refugees and local ‘Alawis. [2] Tensions first peaked in September 2012 when ‘Alawi residents of Antakya protested the growing presence of Sunni refugees; in August 2014 tensions flared anew in several towns in Hatay and other border regions. In this version, by denying Syrian refugees residence permits in Hatay the AKP is playing a constructive role in trying to minimize the risk that Syria’s sectarian tensions will spill over into Turkey.

Parity in Paranoia

All of which leads to the final tragic irony: In Hatay, particularly the city of Antakya, residents of all backgrounds romanticize the region’s long history of religious harmony -- most residents will tell you within minutes that the city has a mosque, a church and a synagogue on a single block. Now everyone agrees that this harmony is strained, and everyone blames the deleterious influence of outside forces. ‘Alawis, for the most part, blame Erdoğan for creating these tensions. Indeed, Erdoğan, who has elevated polarizing rhetoric to an art form, has often gone out of his way to highlight the religious identity of any non-Sunni critic of his Syria policy. ‘Alawi groups took to the streets when, in a speech given after the deaths of 53 people in a massive bombing attack in Hatay’s Reyhanlı in May 2013, Erdoğan stated that “our Sunni citizens were martyred.”

But while ‘Alawis have good reason to blame Erdoğan for rising tensions, many also deny that Asad’s brutal tactics should be faulted as well, insisting, with some justification and some wishful thinking, that there was no significant religious discrimination under Asad’s secular regime. Hatay’s non-‘Alawi residents, in turn, often go to the other extreme, blaming the current tensions in their city on the sectarian viciousness of Asad’s war alone. When they then implicate local ‘Alawis as Asad supporters, they bring this dangerous cycle of inter-communal suspicion full circle.

More than anything else, the fact that rumors of a 2039 referendum are shared by Hatay’s refugees and residents alike show the way members of different ethnic and religious groups have woven complex political histories, real and imagined, stretching from the 1930s to the present, into narratives reflecting their current insecurity. As actions by both the Turkish and Syrian governments increase identity-based polarization, fictitious fears about the future have become a manifestation of all-too-real fears about the present shared by individuals from all backgrounds.

Endnotes

[1] See, for example, Sarah Shields, Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[2] See, for example, Today’s Zaman, September 3, 2012; and Soner Çağaptay, “The Impact of Syria’s Refugees on Southern Turkey,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy (July 2014).

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