Turkey's Ambivalent View of Syria

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak reviews the responses on Turkish social media to the West’s military attack on the Assad regime, following the chemical attack on Duma.

A poster disseminated by Erdogan opponents: "Take citizenship, take the vote."
A poster disseminated by opponents of Erdoğan, depicting the proposal to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees as a deal between Erdoğan and the refugees. The title reads, “Take citizenship, take the vote,” from Twitter.

The chemical attack carried out by the Assad regime in Duma and the military counter-attack by Western forces under the leadership of the United States made their mark on the public discourse within Turkish social media. Turkey shares 911 kilometers of border with Syria and currently houses more than 3 million Syrian refugees, so it is deeply affected by events within its neighbor’s territory. Furthermore, Turkey’s foreign policy, led by President Erdoğan, is acting to position Turkey as a leading, active player in the Middle East politically and militarily, in contrast to the country’s traditional policy of regional non-interference. The discourse on social media reveals the underlying issues in the dispute between the different camps in Turkey regarding the Syrian issue.

In general, secular users disapprove of Erdoğan’s support of the Free Syrian Army, whose members they consider to be religious extremists. They prefer to emphasize secularism as a common denominator connecting them to the Assad camp. Moreover, they oppose the wave of Syrian refugees that have entered the country, which they claim has led to the “conquest of the Turkish cities” and an increase in the unemployment rate among Turkish citizens due to the availability of cheap manpower provided by Syrian refugees. In addition, the issue of granting the refugees citizenship, which was first raised as a possibility in July 2016,[1] was perceived by secularists as one of Erdoğan’s many maneuvers in preparation for the planned April 2017 referendum, which was intended to create additional electoral support for himself. The proposal was finally shelved following the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2017.

However, secular users’ sharpest criticism focuses on the losses suffered by the Turkish army during its military operations in Syria. Secular users, who were not convinced of the necessity of military intervention in northern Syria, launched an online campaign against the government’s decision under the slogan “The Turkish soldier at the front and the Syrian refugee in a cafe.” Their demand, which is shared by extreme nationalists, is to change Turkish foreign policy, as a way of normalizing relations with Syria in order to, among other things, formulate an arrangement for the refugees’ return home. This is, apparently, the reason why they have mostly refrained from criticizing Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, and which was excused as being part of his effort to protect Syrian soil from ostensibly ‘imperialist’ intervention. Therefore, these users denounced the Western response to the attack and the countries involved, under the hashtag “We are with Syria” (see below). Users described the attack as an imperialist move that serves “only the arms dealers.”[2] Some even drew a parallel between the Western attack and the false claims made by former US President George W. Bush against Saddam Hussein, which led to the conquest of Iraq and many casualties in the region.[3]

Erdoğan was also criticized on social media under the hashtag “No to War,” which secular users used to accuse him of cooperation with the West, against the backdrop of his support of the military action against Assad’s regime.[4] Some even cynically used Islamist terms like “crusaders” to describe Western countries, adopting the style of discourse used by Erdoğan’s supporters in the opposing camp. From the perspective of secular users, this is proof how important relations with the West are for Erdoğan, even more than his relations with the “Islamic nation,” in their words, which is being targeted by the West. They also quoted past statements made by Erdoğan, in which he sharply criticized the Western presence in Syria, which in turn has earned him the label “two-faced.”

Erdoğan’s supporters, on the other hand, expressed their support for the Syrian refugees, while harshly criticizing Assad, whom they called “a murderer.” They claimed that the Turkish president is the only leader to speak with the voice of justice, and did not spare criticism of the West, which they claim distinguishes between blood and blood, and does not respond adequately when the blood of innocent Muslims is shed.[5] Erdoğan himself expressed similar criticism, as shown in the posters that his supporters shared on social media. In their posts, the term “two-faced” is used to describe Western countries. Erdoğan’s supporters also acted to justify the Turkish military presence in northern Syria, which they claim provides the only possibility for returning the Syrian refugees to their homes. Support for the Syrian refugees is also found in Turkish textbooks printed in recent years, in which the refugees are referred to as “brothers,” like the “Ensar Kardeşliği” - an historical term referring to the behavior of the hosts who welcomed the immigrants from Mecca who migrated to Medina under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad.

Despite the critical stance expressed by Erdoğan’s supporters towards the West, they welcomed news of the military attack against Assad. These contradictory reactions expose their ambivalent position towards the United States. On one hand, Erdoğan’s supporters demand US withdrawal from Syria because of the pro-Kurdish stance of the Trump government. On the other hand, they ask the US to take decisive action against Assad. It seems, therefore, that hatred of Assad is now surpassing hatred of the Kurds among many of Erdoğan’s supporters. After the offensive ended and its results became clear, users became even more frustrated by the limited scope of the damage done to what they called “real estate” targets, because of the United States’ reluctance to provoke Russia. Russia was also the subject of ambivalent responses, including praise for its cooperation with Turkey in the negotiations regarding Syria, and its assistance in building the first Turkish nuclear reactor in Akkuyu in southern Turkey, while pointing an accusing finger at Putin for his support of Assad.

The discourse on Turkish social media reveals, once again, the ideological rift in Turkish society, which has also spread to the foreign policy issues that have themselves become an inseparable part of domestic politics. It is clear that the secular worldview is becoming more extreme in opposition to the pan-Islamic identification of supporters of the administration. Despite the disagreement between the secular-nationalist camp and Erdoğan’s supporters regarding the preferred foreign policy toward Syria, the discourse reveals that many people in both camps share anti-American positions. This finding is supported, inter alia, by a Pew survey showing that 72% of Turks view the United States as a major threat, while historical enemies like Russia and China are now considered lesser threats, 54% and 33% respectively.[6] The Turkish users’ support for the American attack was therefore motivated less by love for the US, than it was by hatred of Assad.



[1] Erdoğan'dan Türkiye'deki Suriyelilere vatandaşlık açıklaması, BBC Türkçe, July 3, 2016: 

[2] #SuriyeninYanındayız, Twitter.com. 

[3] @ermancimen, Twitter.com. 

[4] #SavaşaHayır, Twitter.com.  

[5] #ÇocukGözüyleGUTA, #DoğuGuta , #Katilesed. Twitter.com.