What to Know About Anti-Syrian Unrest in Turkey

A man rides a motorcycle near a burning truck during protests against Turkey in al-Bab, in the northern Syrian opposition held region of Aleppo, on July 1, 2024. Credit - Bakr Alkasem—AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between enraged Turkish groups and Syrian refugees living in Turkey have reached a boiling point this week, forcing Turkey to close its main border crossing into northwest Syria.

The Bab al Hawa border crossing—the main trade and passenger channel for over 3 million people—as well as the Bab al Salam and other smaller crossings are closed until further notice.

Since Sunday, Reuters reported that at least 474 people have been arrested by Turkish police for targeted attacks that saw Turkish men vandalizing and torching cars and properties belonging to Syrians in Turkey. Seven people are believed to have died as a result of the attacks, per figures cited by Reuters. Skirmishes began Sunday in the city of Kayseri, after allegations that a Syrian man had sexually assaulted a young girl began circulating online. Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya has said that the incident is under investigation.

The border closure was enacted Tuesday, after Syrians confronted the Turkish soldiers in their midst across the border in northern Syria, spurred on by the violence against their community in Turkey.

Violence spread to a number of other provinces including Hatay, Gaziantep, Konya, and Bursa.

“We won’t get anywhere by fueling xenophobia and hatred against refugees in the society,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told mayors from his incumbent Justice and Development Party. He also accused opposition forces for stoking the violence, which is exacerbating bilateral tensions between the neighboring nations.

Here’s what to know about the current relationship between Turkey and Syria.

How have the attacks shaped Turkish and Syrian relations?

“The relationship between Turks and Syrians is deteriorating. Syrian refugees are living in fear and uncertainty,” Ömer Özkizilcik, a nonresident fellow for the Syria Project in the Atlantic Council's Middle East Programs tells TIME.

“There is a well-organized group of people with criminal records who have formed a lynch mob using WhatsApp and Telegram,” Özkizilcik says of the Turkish citizens who were arrested. “Many of the arrested individuals have a history of crimes including sexual assault and illegal migrant smuggling.”

The growing instances of violence has exposed the turning of public solidarity with Syrian refugees in Turkey. The nation is home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, pushed across the border as a result of the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. At the time, Turkey opened its borders to those fleeing the Syrian military, and backed rebels whose aim was to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

How does Turkish society view its refugee crisis?

Turkey currently holds a military presence along the border in northern Syria, where Turkish soldiers and Syrian rebels have carved out so-called safe-zones for refugees wishing to repatriate to Syria. But few have, instead integrating into everyday life in Turkey. This has, in turn, given rise to resentment from some Turks who have had to deal with soaring inflation rates since the economic crisis that began in 2018.

“Since the refugee deal with the EU, public sentiment in Turkey has turned against Syrian refugees. Many Turks feel burdened by hosting refugees and see Turkey as the refugee dumping ground for Europe,” says Özkizilcik. He says that the Turkish opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has led the public to believe that Syrian refugees would return to Syria but Erdogan is the obstacle to this.

“Consequently, most Turks believe that Syrians are in Turkey by choice, not necessity. This has created a perception of burden, especially given the rampant inflation in Turkey,” Özkizilcik adds.

How will anti-Syrian attacks shape relations between Turkey and Syria?

Last Wednesday, President Assad indicated that he was open to talks with Ankara, marking a change within Syria’s government, which often stresses preconditions to any talks with Turkey. Assad did not stipulate the usual preconditions this time, chief among them the full withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria. Erdogan has also said that, after 13 years of strained relations, he did not see any reason to prevent renewed diplomatic ties with Syria. But this week’s violent outbreaks could hinder the resumption of relations between Turkey and Syria.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs issued a statement on its policy regarding Syria, following criticism that recent incidents suggest a collapse in Turkey’s Middle East policy.

“Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, which has turned into a humanitarian tragedy, Türkiye has adopted a principled stance. While revising its foreign policy in line with the requirements of national interests, Türkiye does not hesitate to take necessary measures to counter the threats to its national security,” the statement said.

Ultimately, Özkizilcik says that if Turkey’s government does not address rising xenophobic rhetoric, while adopting “a coordinated strategy” for the return of some Syrian refugees and the integration of others in Turkey, “we can expect more unrest.”

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com.