THO Experts Weigh in on the Refugee Crisis as the EU-Turkey Summit Begins

The Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) continued to emphasize the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis by bringing Turkish authorities closer to American experts and decision-makers
On Friday, March 4, 2016, THO’s second teleconference on this issue, titled, “How to Manage the Refugee Crisis” brought together Dr. Fuat Oktay, President of the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD); Dr. Nora Fisher Onar, Visiting Scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies; and Professor James Gelvin of the University of California Los Angeles.

The Situation in Turkey

Dr. Fuat Oktay characterized the situation in Turkey. Since 2011, the Turkish government has made clear that is has an open door policy for Syrian refugees. Dr. Nora Onar added that Turkey has a long history of hosting refugees dating all the way back to the Ottoman Empire when the Ottomans took in Spanish refugees. Today, Turkey is housing over 2.7 million refugees, mainly in urban non-camp areas said Oktay. The conditions of the camps adhere to United Nations standard with education, healthcare, and professional training services for adults. In order to give a voice to those within the camps, each camp holds elections for managerial positions. 

Although the Turkish government has been able to provide over 300,000 Syrian children with education, Oktay expressed concerns of a “Lost Generation” from the children living outside of camps in urban areas. According to AFAD sources, nearly thirty percent of Syrian refugees are of university age; Syrian refugees lack the higher education they need. In regards to health care, Turkey has provided nearly 350,000 surgeries and 12 million patient services. AFAD’s President indicated that health care services are bottlenecked due to high demand and insufficient supplies. 

According to Dr. Oktay, demographic shifts that the refugees have created are the main source of challenge. Oktay stated that the border town of Kilis now hosts over 130,000 Syrian refugees while the Turkish population remains below 90,000, making job creation a primary concern for authorities. 

Failure by the International Community

Dr. Onar indicated that Europe has mischaracterized the refugee crisis and as a result, it set the stage for an identity and value crisis. Drawing attention to Europe’s lack of commitment and support, she indicated that based on its demographic statistics, the EU’s current share of refugees stand at .02% of the population therefore the EU “clearly has the capacity” to increase its support. Dr. Onar argued that many of the concerns that EU has regarding its long-term demographic profile, such as worker deficits and population imbalances, could simply be resolved through the Syrian refugees.  

Professor Gelving added that as Europe rejects or seek ways to avoid refugees, this helps the Daesh’s narrative, exacerbating the crisis. 
 
Onar argued that as Turkey and the EU continue to work together to come up with new solutions, priorities such as de-incentivizing the multimillion dollar smuggling market, should be established. 

Dr. Oktay expressed his disappointment over limited financial contributions of prominent international organizations such as the United Nations, UNICEF and the EU and called for a substantial increase in aid. AFAD’s President indicated that to this date, Turkey had spent more than $8 billion but it still needed additional funds to provide education and economic investments, particularly in urban areas with high density of refugees. 

The Syrian Civil War

Professor James Gelvin argued that the beginnings of the Syrian civil war much different than the uprisings in Egypt, in the sense that they lacked an epicenter. In addition, civil society was unable to mobilize the movement while the army stood strong. According to Professor, government’s militarization of the uprising led the Assad regime to adopt a scorched earth tactic. 
 
Professor Gelvin indicated that he was not optimistic about the cease-fire because he did not see a unified willingness from all parties involved in the conflict. Drawing similarities from the 1973-74 Vietnam War ceasefire, Professor Gelvin said that despite significant number of casualties the ceasefire might prove to be effective. However, it could also push all parties to make one final attempt in the war. AFAD’s President, who urged for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, did not believe that the cease-fire was going to be effective in bringing the international community closer to a solution.   

Beyond the cease-fire, Gelvin believed there were three shifts in international politics that are optimal for a resolution. According to Professor Gelvin the most important shift was in Daesh’s status. Gelvin indicated that the terrorist organization was becoming a weaker international organization and creating more enemies. Second shift was directly related to U.S – Iran relations. Gelvin argued that in the past, U.S.-Iran relations prevented an agreement to be reached in Syria. However, following the Iran Nuclear Deal, U.S.-Iran relations, while still thin, have improved enough that Iran, a key player in the Syrian civil war, could now be invited to the negotiating table. Lastly, Gelvin argued that Russia’s involvement in the region has restored a battlefield stalemate that may push the opposing sides to the table. 

Through a pessimistic lens, Gelvin stated that Russia and allies may take more territory instead of maintaining a stalemate, and the Iran and Saudi Arabia battle could persist, worsening the situation in Syria and pulling it further away from a resolution. Other problems that would continue regardless of how these states contribute to the conflict include the U.S. involvement. The United States has insisted that Syria remain a unified country, while supporting the Kurds who aim to create an independent state of Rojava. The United States ally with the Kurds has made Turkey nervous as a Kurdish state could run from Syria to norther Iraq. The many actors involved in the conflict all have different priorities. Professor Gelvin indicated that the threat of a power vacuum in the region like in Libya where Jihadists were able to seize control, was still a possibility.  

Both Professor Gelvin and Dr. Oktay agreed that militarily, the region is in desperate need of a safe-zone. Teleconference speakers gave specific examples from those not living in AFAD camps, who have been enduring terrible conditions. Dr. Oktay stated that Russian bombardment coupled with Iranian and PYD attacks are driving greater number of refugees into Turkey. Dr. Oktay and Professor Gelvin suggested that a safe zone would be highly effective in dealing with this influx. 

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