Two Views: Ayman Abdel Nour and Şenay Özden
With Ayman Abdel Nour and Şenay Özden
Over 100,000 lives have been lost in Syria since the revolt against President Bashar al- Assad began in March 2011, and the plight of survivors is dire both inside and outside the war- torn country. Ayman Abdel Nour, editor- in- chief at All4Syria. info ( the most widely read online news and opinion source in Syria), and Şenay Özden, independent researcher and Syria analyst, speak to Yonca Poyraz Doğan for Turkish Review
TURKISH REVIEW: How do you view the Syrian peace talks that took place in January?
AYMAN ABDEL NOUR: There was international support to hold the conference; Russia dealt with the regime and the United States dealt with the opposition in Syria. The regime came to the conference just to be there, with no power in the hand of the delegation and with no acceptance of the Geneva I declaration; the Assad regime’s minister of reconciliation was not even in Geneva. The opposition wanted more, but at least they were recognized internationally and by the regime -- and the process that started will not stop.
TR: News reports suggested the US and Russia clashed at the talks over the pace of Syria’s handover of chemical arms for destruction. Washington accused Damascus of foot- dragging that put the plan weeks behind schedule, while the Syrian president’s ally Moscow rejected this. What is your view on this development?
AAN: [ Syrian President] Bashar al- Assad’s
understanding is that if he destroys all the chemical weapons, he will be open to pressure -- he will be forced to accept and form the ruling council without himself -- so he is working to delay the destruction of the chemicals ’ til after the date of the end of his term. Therefore he bargains with the destruction of chemicals in order to stay in power.
TR: UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi listed some points that he felt the two sides agreed on in the talks and said he thought there was more common ground than the sides recognized. Do you agree with his comment?
AAN: His comments are as diplomatic as his mission. He always focuses on the positive side and makes the achievements look bigger than they really are. Yes, there is acceptance from both sides to fight against terrorism, but the regime considers the opposition “terrorist” while the opposition considers the regime to be the one who creates terrorism through creating Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in order to frighten Europe and the US. So agreeing on the common ground does not mean agreeing on the definitions and implementation of what is recognized.
TR: On the other hand, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem blamed the lack of tangible results on what he called the immaturity and narrow composition of the opposition delegation and their ‘threats to implode’ the talks, as well as blatant US interference. What is your comment on these views?
AAN: His points are right, and the opposition is now trying to solve this issue. There will be many members and organizations that will be added to the opposition’s delegation next time, but for sure not the fabricated opposition created by the Syrian intelligence that al-Moualem wants. As for the US interference, this is not just in relation to the case of the Syrian opposition; it is all over the world that they are a superpower, and they have interests in the world at different levels and are working to protect these. In the Syrian case there are many layers for the interest -- Israel, geographical importance of the Middle East, closeness to the biggest oil reservoirs, etc.
TR: What were your expectations for a breakthrough on political issues at the talks?
AAN: There will be no breakthrough without international pressure on the Assad regime to
accept resolutions from Geneva I and II to form the ruling council without Assad. There will always be manipulation by the regime to delay any breakthrough on political issues, and bluffing of the international community ’til the end.
TR: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,870 people had been killed during the week of talks in January, including 450 civilians and 40 who died from inadequate access to food and medicine in areas besieged by government troops. What is this development telling us, the world?
AAN: It tells us that the regime does not care, and Assad knows that he will not be punished so why not continue business as usual? And it tells us also that the international community still has not decided to punish Assad, and they just watch Syrians getting killed every day and do nothing.
TR: Could it be different if the Western nations were ready to intervene?
AAN: Yes, for sure, that would have finished the killing at an early stage and we would not have this terrorist organization -- ISIS -- and all this traffic, jihadists, from all over the world that came to help the people against the oppression of the
UN MEDIATOR LAKHDAR BRAHIMI’S COMMENTS ARE AS DIPLOMATIC AS HIS MISSION
TR: Do you think Assad’s regime is winning the war? AAN: No, for sure, but there is also a big lobby -- a big international lobby, not individual countries -which is keen to make the war balanced so when one side progresses, this side will be stopped so the war can continue ’til that lobby decides to finish it according to its vision and interests.
TR: Are the Western allies of the Syrian opposition clear about what they ultimately want? Do they want Assad out or are they only interested in halting the war?
AAN: No they are not united about the end. There are two groups; the first wants the war to continue for 10 years, which will help to destroy Syria, kill more fighters from Hizbullah, and get rid of jihadists in Europe and the US. The second group of countries understands that a long war will make terrorism in Syria a local matter and make ordinary Syrians more involved in terrorism -- which ’til now has not happened -- and if that happens it will put Europe and the world in new danger.
TR: US Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear
that the US is resolute on eventually seeing a Syria without Assad. Do you believe that’s what the US wants?
AAN: Yes, this reflects the vision of one lobby in the US, but there is another lobby which pushes to do nothing, under the banner of not interfering, and of letting the Syrians solve their own problems and not repeating the mistakes of Iraq .
TR: The Assad regime is working to legitimize its status by publicizing the actions of Salafist fighters. It is spreading the fear that Syria will fall into the hands of these groups and that the toppling of the regime will affect the West negatively. How true is this?
AAN: It is not true. Syrians practice the most modern version of Islam. And never in history have we had radical Islam in Syria. ISIS was created by the regime, Iran and Iraq. In each country, it serves the objectives it was created for. Syrians with the cooperation of the Free Syrian Army ( FSA) succeeded in kicking ISIS out within three days from most of their places ’ til the FSA ran out of ammunition, so ISIS gained back part of what it lost. I am not afraid that Syria will fall into the hands of the radicals unless the war continues for years.
TR: The Turkish government is under domestic pressure to recast its Syria policy. Do you think it needs to reshape its Syria policy -- and if so, how?
AAN: The policy adapted by the Turkish government reflects the good relations between the two countries and the ethics of a good neighbor. There is always space to re-evaluate the strategies and policies adapted, maybe through second track diplomacy. In addition, Turkey can use its power to help the democratic movements, and not only the Islamist part of the revolution.
TR: Why are the Syrians in Turkey not recognized as refugees but as ‘guests’?
ŞENAY ÖZDEN: Even though Turkey is a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Turkey’s asylum policy is characterized by the “geographical limitation” with which it implements the convention. Turkey originally accepted the convention with both the “time” and the “geographical” limitation. With the
adoption of the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees Turkey lifted the “time” but kept the “geographical” limitation, implying that the Turkish state grants refugee status and the right to asylum only to “persons who have become refugees as a result of events occurring in Europe.” Asylum seekers from outside of Europe are assessed in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such asylum seekers are granted temporary asylum status until a decision is reached. Those asylum seekers who are accepted as refugees are then resettled in a third country with the support of the UNHCR.
In line with the “geographical limitation,” Syrians who have fled to Turkey are recognized as “guests under temporary protection” and not as “refugees;” and the camps where Syrians reside are officially “guest camps,” not “refugee camps.” However, Syrians in Turkey are not treated like asylum seekers coming from other non-European countries, either. They cannot register with the UNHCR in order to apply for asylum in a third country.
TR: How does not being granted refugee status increase the vulnerability of Syrians?
ŞÖ: Many Syrians have stated that their major complaint about the Turkish government is that they are not being granted refugee status. The Turkish state has not carried out a policy toward Syrians based on a discourse of rights, but rather one based on “generosity” that implies unpredictability about their presence, their rights and obligations in Turkey. Many Syrians have expressed that each time they contacted the police due to problems with landlords or employers they were told to “go back home and be quiet” and “be thankful to Turkey” for opening its border to Syrians. Not having refugee status basically leaves Syrians at the mercy of current local and central authorities in Turkey rather than providing them protection and rights based on national and international law that transcends party politics.
TR: Would you provide an overview of Syrian migration to Turkey since the start of unrest in March 2011? What is the number of displaced Syrians crossing the border into Turkey since 2011 -registered and unregistered?
ŞÖ: The first major influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey began toward the end of April in 2011. By early September 2011 Turkey had set up six refugee camps that were hosting approximately 7,000 refugees. Almost a year later in August of 2012, around 80,000 Syrians had registered, and then by the end of 2012 the number had rocketed to an overwhelming 120,000. According to the most recent figures announced by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD), the total number of Syrians registered and assisted in 21 camps in 10 provinces is over 210,000 (67,000 in Urfa, 37,000 in Kilis, 34,000 in Gaziantep, 15,000 in Maraş and Hatay). The largest proportion of Syrian refugees (65 percent), however, are those living outside of refugee camps. There are around 90,000 Syrians in Gaziantep and 60,000 in Hatay. According to
THE TURKISH STATE HAS NOT CARRIED OUT A POLICY TOWARD SYRIANS BASED ON A DISCOURSE OF RIGHTS, BUT RATHER ONE BASED ON ‘ GENEROSITY’
UNHCR sources, there are currently 370,000 Syrians registered outside the camps, and onefifth of these have residence permits. The government estimates that there are a total of 700,000 Syrians living in Turkey.
TR: Are there reliable figures as to how many Syrians are now in Turkey’s cities?
ŞÖ: Registration and organized settlement of displaced people by local and central authorities is vital in order to secure the rights and obligations of refugee communities Furthermore, registration is an important process of transparency in regard to the authorities’ refugee policy and is vital for a just distribution of aid. However, there is no strict mechanism of registering Syrians living outside of camps. Syrians who have entered the country with a passport are granted a one-year residency. In some cities, such as Gaziantep, Syrians who do not have a passport can register with AFAD and receive a card that provides them with access to health care at public hospitals. However, such a registration mechanism is voluntary and not applicable in all cities, such as Hatay and İstanbul.
Therefore, there are no reliable figures as to how many Syrians are residing in cities.
TR: Are there any Syrians who fled to Turkey from Damascus?
ŞÖ: The majority of the Syrians who fled to Turkey came from northern provinces that were liberated from regime control relatively early on. There are some Syrians who came to Turkey from Damascus, but not in big numbers since checkpoints and bombings mean it is a very dangerous “trip” to make from Damascus all the way to the Turkish border.
TR: Your research shows that initially it was mostly political activist youth who fled to Turkey. What has happened as the violence of the regime increased?
ŞÖ: As the violence of the Assad regime increased, more and more Syrians fled their country for humanitarian reasons. We began to see more Syrians entering Turkey due to shelling and bombing of their villages and homes, and due to lack of access to health care and basic supplies such as food.
TR: Have Syrians returned to Syria from Turkey? Why?
ŞÖ: According to many testimonies by Syrians themselves, Syrians in Turkey cross back and forth between Syria and Turkey on a frequent basis -- of course if this is permitted by the security situation on the other side of the border. Crossing back and forth between Turkey and Syria is a means of survival for many Syrian families. Many cross the border bringing items such as cigarettes, coffee and tea to sell in Turkey just to make a small living. Areas in close proximity to the border, such as in and around Kilis and Kırıkhan, are frequented by Syrian women and children selling such commodities on the streets. Some interviewees stated that because border control by Turkish authorities has become stricter, many Syrian families in Turkey have lost a major source of income. According to the accounts of my interviewees, there are also many who cross into Syria now and then to go and check on relatives left behind. Some who manage to make earnings beyond meeting their basic needs bring money and goods back to families who have remained inside.
TR: Would you say that Turkey has been handling the Syrian migration situation well or not?
ŞÖ: Many Syrians I have spoken to state that the conditions for Syrians in Turkey are better than the conditions in the other surrounding countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. However, this does not imply that Turkey should not change its policy to provide more durable protection to Syrians, such as providing them with refugee status.
TR: What policy recommendations would you make to the Turkish government in this regard?
ŞÖ: There is no systematized mechanism to inform Syrians of the local and national services (health, education, residency, humanitarian aid) available to them as well as the rights and obligations they are entitled to through their status in Turkey. Syrians would highly benefit from a rights and duties guide prepared at the local level and updated regularly. Many of the Syrian refugees have complained that they are either victimized or treated as criminals by the locals. They have also stated that they have no agency and no platform through which they can voice their complaints in Turkey. Civil society organizations and local authorities could cooperate with Syrians in establishing committees/platforms that represent Syrians. Such committees would enable a more participatory approach to integrating Syrians into their host communities.
The humanitarian aid mechanism appears to be one of the factors causing tensions among the local and Syrian populations. Many Syrians stated that they prefer income-generating projects rather than more humanitarian aid projects. Income generation projects, however, should also be designed so as not to upset the local economic balance or cause more unemployment for the local population. In line with such a policy, income generation projects should not be limited solely to training or educational programs, but rather should have longterm targets and should be carried out in cooperation with local and regional stakeholders. TR
AYMAN ABDEL NOUR
rebels and the regime, mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi, failed to produce concrete results.
Syrian refugees in Turkey’s Reyhanlı refugee camp, Hatay province.