Home News Thugs attack Syrian refugees in Turkey with fists and knives

Thugs attack Syrian refugees in Turkey with fists and knives

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Over the past two days, angry men in six Turkish cities have turned on Syrian refugees living among them, vandalizing their shops and cars and attacking them with fists and knives.

Across the border in Turkey-dominated northern Syria, Syrians clashed with Turkish soldiers, threw rocks at their vehicles, tore down Turkish flags and denounced them in street protests.

Sporadic violence in Syria has killed at least seven people, according to war monitors, exposing deepening cracks in the coexistence between Syria and Turkey on both sides of the border. After years of generally peaceful relations, recent political changes and deepening economic woes have brought tensions to the surface.

Many Turks have come to resent the 3.1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, blaming them (with or without evidence) for exacerbating Turkey’s economic problems, including low wages and persistent inflation (which exceeded 75% in May).

Many Syrians who oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s government no longer see Turkey as their biggest protector and fear it will abandon them. Support for the repatriation of Syrian refugees is shared across Turkey’s political spectrum.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who broke ties with Syria in 2011 and backed rebels seeking to overthrow Assad, said last week he would not rule out meeting his former adversary to restore ties.

An activist who identified himself as Abu Samer al-Halabi said by telephone from Syria’s northern province of Idlib, where protesters clashed with Turkish soldiers this week, that the region was “like a balloon that is about to burst.”

“There are deep reasons for this tension,” he said. “At the negotiating table, the Turks are with us, but outside the table, they are not.”

Turkey opened its borders to refugees fleeing brutal Syrian army attacks on rebel communities after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Turkey has built refugee camps to house political opponents against Assad and has supported rebels fighting Assad’s forces in northern Syria.

In recent years, as the war has reached a stalemate, Turkey has moved its own troops into Syrian rebel-held areas along the border, deployed soldiers on sensitive fronts to stop rebel advances, and established close ties with rebel groups in so-called safe zones in the hope that Syrian refugees in Turkey will return there.

But only a minority of Syrians have done so, with millions scattered across Turkey. Overall, they have lived in peace with their Turkish hosts, with many learning to speak Turkish and sending their children to Turkish schools. While some have started businesses, many work in manufacturing and agriculture for meagre incomes.

Many Turks oppose allowing so many Syrians into the country, but their views on refugees have soured further since a cost-of-living crisis that began in 2018 left many Turks feeling even poorer. Encouraged by right-wing politicians and journalists, many have turned their anger toward the refugees.

This week’s unrest was sparked by accusations on Sunday that a Syrian man molested his 7-year-old cousin in a public toilet in the central Turkish city of Kayseri. Turkish authorities said the man had been arrested and the girl, her mother and siblings were under state protection while police investigated.

That night, angry men in Kayseri attacked Syrian cars, shops and homes, setting some on fire, according to videos posted on social media and broadcast on Turkish television.

Similar attacks took place in six cities on Monday, including Hatay, Konya and Istanbul, as men armed with batons marched through Syrian neighborhoods and threw rocks at their buildings. In Gaziantep, a group of men surrounded a Syrian man and stabbed him in the leg, forcing him to flee across a busy street, according to surveillance footage broadcast by Turkish news media.

Erdogan, speaking at a rally of mayors from the ruling Justice and Development Party on Monday, condemned the violence and accused his political opponents of inciting it.

“Inciting xenophobia and hatred in society against refugees will not do anything good,” Erdogan said, adding that the attacks were carried out by a small group of “people” inspired by “the malicious rhetoric of the opposition.”

On Tuesday, Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya wrote on social media that security forces had detained 474 people in connection with the violence.

As news of the Turkish attack reached Syria, protesters and armed groups in Syria pointed the finger at the Turkish military, accusing the Turks of racially discriminating against Syrians. Another way to fuel anger, activists in the region say, is fear that Turkey is exploring ways to restore relations with Assad, a scenario that could endanger Syrians who now live in areas outside government control.

Unrest broke out in towns across northern Syria as rebels and protesters clashed with Turkish troops. Six people were killed in clashes on Monday when demonstrators tried to storm the Turkish-backed government’s headquarters in the town of Afrin, according to the Britain-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A seventh person was killed elsewhere.

Turkey responded by withdrawing some Turkish troops, reinforcing others and closing border crossings between Turkey and Syria on Tuesday.

Serhat Elkman, a Turkish security analyst who has conducted research in northern Syria, said in an interview that armed groups there have been uneasy about the possibility of repairing relations between Turkey and Syria. Many of their members have fled to the north from other parts of Syria, fearing the loss of the Turkish protection they have been relying on.

“For them, the idea of ​​reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus might mean a return to the status quo ante, but they can’t go back to the way things were before the war,” Mr. Elkman said. “When they hear things like peace talks, they feel like they’re losing their future.”

Turkey may be able to calm the situation now, but Elkman said he expects interactions between the Syrian and Turkish governments to continue to increase, eventually bringing Erdogan and Assad together.

“It’s coming. First it’s high-level engagement, then it’s leadership-level engagement,” he said.

Wahda Saad Reporting from Beirut, Lebanon also contributed.

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