Berkin Safak Sener is a first-year MA student in the International Development program.

Since 2011, more than two million Syrians have set foot in Turkey to seek refuge as the Turkish government hastily planned and organized the provision of relief. According to the latest data from Turkey’s Directorate General for Migration Management, approximately two million Syrian refugees are currently residing in Turkey, with more than 250,000 living in refugee camps (Turkish Prime Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, 2014).

This article outlines the demographic situation of Syrian refugees and provides a critical assessment of the new Turkish foreign policy in the context of the current refugee crisis. The shortcomings of the new Turkish foreign policy are discussed in connection to Turkey’s recent policy shifts and policy quandaries. In this article, policy shifts comprise Turkey’s changed attitude towards the Assad regime, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). On the other hand, policy quandaries facing Turkey involve deciding between international burden sharing versus self-sufficient relief provision and extraterritorial operations versus non-intervention in Syria.

Turkey has established a total of 22 refugee camps in ten provinces. According to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, Turkey has spent $7.6 billion on Syrian refugees to date (TRT World 2015). Specifically, Turkey has been providing substantial humanitarian relief, including free access to health services to Syrian citizens who are living under Temporary Protection Status. Due to Turkey’s limited acceptance of the the terms and conditions outlined in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, Turkey does not grant incoming migrants refugee status unless they are coming from Europe. Therefore, at present, Syrian “guests” are treated under the norms and conditions of Temporary Protection Status, as well as the non-refoulement principle, which prohibits forcing refugees to go back to their countries, where their lives and freedom could be at risk.

Graph 1. Syrian citizens entitled to Temporary Protection Status in Turkey as of August 2015. Source: Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior Directorate General of Migration Management. [Accessed 25 Sep 2015] Available at:  

Graph 1. Syrian citizens entitled to Temporary Protection Status in Turkey as of August 2015.

Source: Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior Directorate General of Migration Management. [Accessed 25 Sep 2015] Available at:  


In Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s (2005) renowned book, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position, he claims that Turkey retains multiple regional identities – Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea – which give Turkey the responsibility to exert influence in these regions by means of conflict resolution, and enforcing international peace and security.[1] He identifies two domestic preconditions for Turkey to achieve this end: to resolve the Kurdish question and reconcile Turkey’s Islamist and secular elements.

Although significant improvement has been attained in reforming Turkey’s status quo-oriented foreign policy, something went wrong in advancing this new approach. At the forefront of Turkey’s policy shifts is its complete reversal towards the Assad regime. At first, this pragmatic policy shift sought to obtain short-term returns in domestic politics. However, as political instability evolved into a civil war, Turkey encountered an influx of Syrians seeking refuge at its borders. The “psychological threshold” of 100,000 refugees[2], as declared by the then-Foreign Minister Davutoglu, had passed before unilateral or multilateral intervention in Syria. Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Syria in March 2012 and its Consul General to Aleppo, Syria in July 2012. All the armed players of the anti-Assad camp were backed logistically and financially, if not militarily. According to the UN Comtrade Database, at the height of Syrian civil war, Turkey continued to export arms and ammunition to Syria, including to armed Syrian opposition groups.

If Turkey’s extraordinary efforts to provide humanitarian relief to refugees had been followed by the collapse of the Assad regime, Turkey’s hegemonic role in Syria’s restoration would have been consolidated. However, this has not been the case.

Graph 2. Turkey’s export of arms and ammunition to Syria.  Source: UN Comtrade Database. Available at:

Graph 2. Turkey’s export of arms and ammunition to Syria. 

Source: UN Comtrade Database. Available at:

Turkey’s second policy shift was related to ISIS. It can be argued that Turkey at one point generally condoned the alliance of radical Islamist groups under the aegis of ISIS, as the logistic support to armed opposition had occurred without discrimination. Fragile and fractious opposition in Syria paved the way for Turkey’s unintentional support of various elements of ISIS. Turkey’s passive acceptance of ISIS was partly due to domestic security concerns. Hypothetically, Turkey might have considered ISIS as a necessary evil to overthrow the Assad regime, though backing such a claim requires further evidence. What is definite, though, is that Turkey changed its hesitant stance towards ISIS. Turkey, which neither took a central role in the anti-ISIS coalition in September 2014 nor officially allowed the U.S. Air Force to use its İncirlik airbase (Tziarras 2015), shifted its attitude and amended its rules of engagement that had previously only targeted Assad’s forces to also include ISIS in June 2015. Since then, Turkish armed forces have been authorized to strike ISIS terrorists in the border without prior orders (Berber 2015).

Turkey’s third policy shift is related to two significant components, which are at the intersection of the refugee crisis, Turkey’s general elections, and the Kurdish presence in northern Syria. On July 20, 2015, the Suruç bombing in the city of Sanliurfa, Turkey killed 33 young activists and wounded 104 others. The victims, who were holding a press conference on their plan to reconstruct Kobanê, Syria were young members of socialist parties acting under the banner of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing of the event. Turkey faced this massive attack and subsequent social upheaval with a newly-elected parliament. The AK Party, which had ruled Turkey for 13 years, lost its majority primarily due to decreased support among Kurdish constituencies. Turkey’s abovementioned policy shift toward ISIS was coupled with the country’s reinvigorated war against the PKK. The peace process, aiming for a sustainable solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey, has been turned upside-down. President Erdogan restarted a full-fledged war against the PKK after stating, on July 28, 2015, that the peace process had been abused and could no longer be sustained “with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood” (Bailey-Hoover and McDonnell 2015).


Who is to shoulder the organizational and financial burden of providing and sustaining humanitarian relief to inbound refugees? From the very beginning of the refugee crisis, Turkey has undergone a rapid institutional reform process. The provision of relief, including the establishment of camps, was bravely undertaken by the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) until the establishment of the Directorate General of Migration Management on April 11, 2013. Long meetings and negotiations were held with international stakeholders such as the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Necessary legislation was quickly ratified by the parliament.[3] As Aktas (2015) remarks, the whole process was undertaken so hastily that the Turkish Court of Auditors reported in 2012 that the AFAD had initiated humanitarian aid actions and expenditures without following any sort of procedures and principles. In financing the relief, Turkey was hesitant to allow international relief providers, including the UN organizations, to take action in the camps.[4] Always calling for fairer international burden-sharing, Turkey insisted on a peculiar procedure whereby donors would lend the sum and allow Turkey to spend it as it wishes. Of course, this was contrary to international donors’ codes of conduct.

Turkey’s second quandary is related to whether it should intervene in Syria through an extraterritorial military operation. Turkey’s reluctance to participate in the Western alliance against ISIS in September 2014 was an example of Turkish uncertainty regarding this question. This policy quandary seems justifiable considering Turkey’s concrete concern of domestic terrorist activity that is likely to be triggered by an overt government strike against ISIS. Nonetheless, it is equally justifiable to claim that it was this state of uncertainty that enabled ISIS to diffuse within Turkey’s radical Islamist circles and to continue to import foreign fighters through neighboring countries, including Turkey. The state of uncertainty began to gradually disappear with Turkey’s air strikes in Syrian regions under ISIS control. However, these strikes started too late to have prevented the consolidation of ISIS power in northern Syria.


Turkey’s abovementioned policy shifts and quandaries indirectly exacerbated the refugee crisis. The cost of condoning ISIS has been far beyond the estimation of Turkish policy-makers. Furthermore, the unsustainability of Turkey’s unilateral provision of humanitarian relief to refugees was underlined by the tragic death of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi on Turkey’s Aegean shore. Turkey’s hesitance to share authority with international stakeholders and donors did not help strengthen Turkey’s hegemonic image. Instead, this relatively decreased the quality of humanitarian assistance provided.

One of the preconditions of the Davutoglu doctrine, the resolution of the conflict with Turkey’s Kurds, has recently, in President Erdogan’s words, been put “in the fridge” (Ozer 2015). Several questions remain to be answered: Would Syria have remained at peace if Davutoglu had implemented his Strategic Depth doctrine properly? Or, was it the Strategic Depth doctrine, which failed to quickly act towards regime change in Syria, that turned the country into a humanitarian quagmire and caused the refugee crisis?  


[1] For a brief review of the book see (Grigoriadis 2010).

[2] The psychological threshold implied that 100,000 refugees is a critical limit after which Turkey would act to stem migratory influx. See (Parkinson 2012).

[3] The most important legislation was the ratification of the Temporary Protection Regulation published in the Official Gazette on Oct 22, 2014.

[4] There are several international organizations active in the field currently such as MercyCorps, Save the Children, Danish Refugee Council, and Médicins du Monde. However, their overall share of humanitarian assistance of provision remains comparatively low.


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Bailey-Hoover, Jeremiah and Patrick J. McDonnell, 2015. “Turkey steps up bombing – but on Kurds, not Islamic State.” Los Angeles Times. [Accessed 31 Oct 2015] Available at:

Berber, MA., 2015. “Turkey to change rules of engagement include ISIS for possible operation.” Daily Sabah. [Accessed 23 Sep 2015] Available at:

Davutoglu, A., 2005. Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiyenin Uluslararası Konumu. İstanbul: Küre

Grigoriadis, I., 2010. “The Davutoğlu Doctrine and Turkish Foreign Policy.” Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) Working Paper No. 8/2010. [Accessed 22 Sep 2015] Available at:ΚΕΙΜΕΝΟ-ΕΡΓΑΣΙΑΣ-8_2010_IoGrigoriadis1.pdf 

Kirisci, K., 2009. “The transformation of Turkish foreign policy: the rise of the trading state.” New Perspectives on Turkey. 40. pp. 29-57.

Özer, V., 2015. “Turkey’s peace process still on.” Hürriyet Daily News. [Accessed 24 Sep 2015] Available at: 

Parkinson, J., 2012. “Turkey hits ‘limit’ of Syrian refugees.” The Wall Street Journal. 15 Oct. 2012. [Accessed 19 Oct 2015] Available at:

Republic of Turkey Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management. [Accessed 25 Sep 2015] Available at:

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Turkey’s Ministry of the Interior Directorate General of Migration Management. [Accessed 25 Sep 2015] Available at: 

Turkish Prime Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management Authority. Report titled “Population Influx From Syria to Turkey Life in Turkey as a Syrian Guest 2014.” [Accessed 25 Sep 2015] Available at:

Tziarras, Z. 2015. “Shifting the balance against the ISIS, or why Turkey changed its mind.” The Globalized World Post. [Accessed 26 Sep 2015] Available at:

UN Comtrade Database. Available at: 

PHOTO CREDIT: "Syria: two years of tragedy" by U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office is licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0