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Nowhere is Safe for Syrians: Pogroms in Turkey and Clashes in Northwest Syria

Updated: Jul 10

A pogrom against Syrian refugees in central Turkey sparked unprecedented protests and retaliatory violence across Turkish-occupied territory in northern Syria.

Dozens of angry men spent the last night of June and first morning of July, 2024 rampaging through the streets of Kayseri–throwing rocks through the windows of apartments and businesses, ransacking shops, and flipping over cars while occasionally setting buildings and vehicles on fire.

Some rioters were even filmed using bulldozers to destroy cars and motorcycles before law enforcement fired water cannons to disperse the violent mobs. At least 67 people were arrested the following day on suspicion of vandalism, arson, and assaults on Syrian refugees as well as police officers and firefighters sent in to quell the unrest. 

The violence erupted after a video reportedly showing a 26-year-old Syrian man abusing a 7-year-old girl went viral on Turkish social media. This was immediately followed by a flurry of exaggerations and hate speech, including unevidenced claims that the perpetrator was being shielded from police by Kayseri’s refugee community. Online calls for the deportation or worse of all Syrians in Turkey reached an all-time high before the latest and largest anti-Syrian pogroms took place in Kayseri and other cities further south. 

The provincial police chief was filmed the following morning calling out to rioters from a balcony that the government had “received the message.” He added that the suspect had been arrested and the victim was now “under state protection,” with her mother and siblings. The police chief made sure to emphasize that the victim was the perpetrator’s cousin and “not Turkish,” a statement that caused controversy when translated and repeated by foreign media. 

This was not the first time 3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey have had to endure mob violence, a recurring phenomenon with increasing severity since 2021. This began after a fight between young men in Ankara culminated in a Turkish teenager being stabbed to death by a Syrian in his twenties. Crowds of enraged Turks soon pooled into the neighborhood where the stabbing took place to shatter the windows of apartments where Syrians were believed to live, loot businesses owned by Syrians, and overturn their vehicles. 

The last few years have seen a sharp increase in discrimination and racist violence against Syrians and other Arabs living in Turkey, coinciding with a sharp economic downturn that has only gotten worse over time. Refugees are often blamed by Turkish nationalists for taking jobs–undesirable occupations that pay the lowest salaries, as well as for increasing inflation and crime rates. The meager amount of financial aid that refugees receive from governments and non-governmental organizations has bred resentment among middle class and working class Turks who increasingly struggle just to make a living.

Scapegoating Arabs for Turkey’s dismal economy has ironically made the problem even worse by hurting its tourism industry, a vital pillar of the Turkish economy. Wealthy visitors from the Gulf used to regularly travel to Istanbul and spend money at local businesses, but incidents of anti-Arab hate speech and mob violence have convinced many to vacation elsewhere. 

Xenophobia is an accepted way of expressing anger at the status quo in a country where directly criticizing government officials for mismanaging the economy can get one arrested on vague charges and imprisoned or, in the case of Syrians and other foreigners, deported. Turkey has tried to assuage local prejudices and resentment against refugees by rounding up and expelling thousands of Syrians, oftentimes under dubious legal grounds, since 2021. One case saw multiple refugees arrested and deported after they posted videos of themselves eating bananas on TikTok. 

They were mocking a Turkish man interviewed in a different video about worsening economic conditions, who became famous for claiming, “I see Syrians in the bazaar buying kilograms of bananas, [while] I myself cannot afford them.” Other cases have seen refugees arbitrarily detained and coerced, sometimes under torture or the threat thereof, into signing “voluntary return” documents before being deported back to Syria.

The Kayseri pogrom coincided with the detention of hundreds of men, women, and children in Gaziantep–a city that once proudly touted their integration of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Dozens of deportation vans were filmed cruising down the streets in videos later posted online by xenophobic Turks applauding the expulsion of Syrians with hateful comments and gleeful emojis. 

There is a paradoxical relationship between deportation campaigns and exclusionary violence, the former tends to embolden and galvanize violent bigots rather than appease them. 

This was seen recently in Lebanon, where an announced campaign to deport hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Assad regime-held territory–an act of refoulement, which is an internationally recognized human rights violation–was followed by unprecedented mob violence. Syrians in Lebanon have reported being beaten in the streets by xenophobic gangs, publicly humiliated, and sometimes even attacked with dogs while walking to their jobs or going out to buy food. 

Refugees of all nationalities are commonly stereotyped as invaders, thieves, sexual predators, and unemployed free-loaders living off of government assistance that should instead be given to the host nation’s citizens. This is true not only for Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe but also Latin American refugees crossing the United States’s southern border in similar numbers. Politicians from Donald Trump to Suella Braverman, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orban have used refugees as a rhetorical punching bag during their demagogic speeches and this often encourages racists to engage in hate crimes.

Syrians across the world have spent years watching bigotry online and in real life increase sharply over the years, with Turkey in particular standing out for hate speech and mob violence. 

The world’s largest Syrian refugee community are commonly demonized as parasitic criminals, despite the fact that Syrians pay taxes and some have even started businesses. They have contributed to the Turkish economy by filling in understaffed jobs and depositing more than 1.5 billion lira (tens of millions in US dollars) into Turkish banks. More than 10,000 companies have been founded by Syrian entrepreneurs since 2011, creating more than 100,000 new jobs for both Syrian refugees and Turkish citizens. 

The pogrom in Kayseri had ripple effects not only across Turkey–where similar riots were reported in more cities further south, near the border–but also in parts of Northwest Syria occupied by the Turkish military and Syrian National Army (SNA) militias on their payroll. 

Residents of Al-Bab, Afrin, Jarablus, and other cities in northern Aleppo have long resented the rampant corruption and criminality of their occupiers, as well as economic exploitation by Turkish businesses. This was further compounded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent moves to re-establish diplomatic relations with Bashar al-Assad, who killed and displaced the families of a majority of people currently living in Northwest Syria. 

Erdogan, who once prided himself on doing more to support the armed opposition than any other head of state, has overhauled his Syria policy and moved to freeze the conflict in recent years after his political opponents started siphoning votes with anti-Syrian rhetoric.

Displaced Syrians were willing to put up with the less-than-ideal conditions of Turkish racism and occupation in exchange for protection from a regime that slaughtered more than 500,000 men, women, and children via indiscriminate bombing, chemical weapons attacks, and mass-torture.

Erdogan now openly calling for rapprochement with the Assad regime, mass-deportations in Gaziantep, and the Kayseri pogrom occurring in the span of just a few days added up to the last straw for people living in Turkish-occupied Syria. They, unlike refugees in Turkey, were in a position to respond in force against their heavily outnumbered occupiers. Years of pent up rage exploded on July 1, 2024 as locals and displaced people came out to vent their sense of betrayal and make it clear they will never accept the dictator they revolted against in 2011.

You want to sell us to Assad!” one man in Afrin was filmed shouting at soldiers guarding a checkpoint. Other pictures posted to social media saw the Free Syria flag standing alone after being paired with that of Turkey for more than half a decade in territory controlled by Turkey and the Syrian National Army.

Protests in some cases escalated into riots when SNA militiamen joined the protests and started blocking roads, attacking and sometimes disabling trucks carrying cargo from Turkey, and shooting at the Turkish-appointed governor’s office. There were also reports of business owners, MIT intelligence officers, and other Turkish individuals being singled out and attacked by angry mobs similar in some ways to the ones that rampaged through Kayseri.

Soldiers responded to demonstrations and sporadic rioting by setting up more checkpoints and restricting travel between restive communities. Snipers were seen on rooftops in Jinderes before videos of militiamen and civilian protestors being shot at and carrying away wounded individuals circulated online. News of the shootings sparked even more rioting and prompted more SNA militias to side with the protestors, who managed to overrun a few Turkish bases and prompt the evacuation of several more. 

Militias that were once synonymous with Turkish occupation–like Ahrar al-Sharqiya and the Hamza Division, or at least certain factions within each group–poured into multiple cities and towns on motorcycles and SUVs to expel the soldiers. Two-way shootouts were reported in multiple locations as the hours went on, particularly in Atarib. 

At least 7 Syrians were dead by the end of the day, including “5 former fighters from Eastern Ghouta,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while more than 20 more people were lightly to severely wounded by gunfire.

Infighting between SNA militias has happened before, but there has never been this sort of civilian-militia insurrection against Turkish soldiers in Northwest Syria. It is unclear what long-term consequences will result from this long-awaited day of rage, especially while anti-refugee pogroms in Turkey and clashes in Syria remain ongoing at the time of this writing.

President Erdogan has attempted to portray himself as a defender of Syrians and other minorities while responding to the current crisis, but his promises to deport 1 million Syrian refugees–a full third of Turkey’s Syrian population–while running for reelection last year helped incite the current atmosphere of hatred and violence. The Turkish president accused his political rivals of “fueling xenophobia and hatred of refugees in society,” with a “poisonous discourse,” after which his opponents angrily denied his accusations and pointed out his hypocrisy. 

Umit Ozdag, leader of the far-right Victory Party–whose main criticism of Erdogan is that he is deporting Syrians too slowly, doubled down on a conspiracy theory that refugees receive preferential treatment from the Turkish government to deflect blame for the pogrom. 

Americans will likely recognize accusations that a ruling party is bringing in droves of immigrants to naturalize them and use them as a voting bloc in the future because this has become a common right-wing talking point about immigrants and refugees in the United States.  

Hatred of refugees is not unique to Syrians or Turks, it is a global issue growing in severity as the world’s refugee population increases unabated due to war, famine, genocide, civil unrest, and ecological collapse. Bigotry and violence against refugees will grow exponentially worse in the coming decades if climate change and brutal conflicts raging around the world are not met with an adequate international response.

Refugees are not invaders, contrary to what many people hear on a regular basis from racist politicians–they are more likely to be fleeing an invasion, like millions of people from Ukraine or Sudan. 

No successful invasion in human history has ever been conducted by hundreds, thousands, even millions of people arriving in a new land possessing nothing other than the clothes on their backs. Refugees are also statistically less likely to commit crimes due to the fear of being deported, although desperate individuals sometimes engage in regrettable and if not downright criminal behavior. 

Syrian refugees find themselves in a particularly dangerous position in 2024 as governments around the world move to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and pretend that “Syria is safe now,” as an excuse to deport and refuse entry to Syrians. This common lie is easy to disprove with a quick look at the violence and full-blown warfare that still occurs across the country on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. 

One example of this is the fact that more than 4,000 Syrian civilians and military personnel have been killed by ISIS since the group was technically defeated, in a territorial sense, in early 2019. This lingering insurgency, based mostly in the sparsely-populated desert but increasing in both intensity and geographic reach with each passing year, is just one of multiple ongoing sources of instability. 

Taking that into account, along with recent shootings and shelling by the Assad regime in the town of Kanaker–just a stone’s throw away from the capital city, Damascus–plus ongoing conflict between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor while violence continues in Northwest Syria continues and constantly mutates…

Putting all of that data together leaves one with the conclusion that war is indeed still raging across Syria–albeit to a lesser extent than in 2012 to 2016, when the “Syrian Civil War” was constantly in the news.

It remains to be seen what will become of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, but the events of early July will almost certainly have long-term consequences. Anti-refugee pogroms remain ongoing, with riots breaking out in Gaziantep and Adana after Turks heard about and saw videos of their soldiers in Syria being attacked by mobs of angry Syrians. The upheaval in both countries has become cyclical, with outbreaks of violence in one place feeding unrest in the other, continuing to rage at the time of this writing.

There has been speculation that either the Assad regime or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has sometimes supported and other times opposed the Turkish presence in Syria, have either played a role in stoking the protests or will attempt to capitalize on them in the near future. Only time will tell if these accusations and predictions turn out to be true or not.

What is known for certain is that Syrian refugees desperately need renewed world attention as government after government attempts to silence them, shove them out of the public eye, and eventually deport them back to a regime that has waged a genocide against political opposition. 

Refugees are not invaders–they are not subhuman monsters living in tents and slums merely to collect a financial handout, as far too many politicians around the world are claiming right now. They are, bar none, the most desperate and deprived group of people alive anywhere in the world today. They often lack access to clean water, education, medicine, nutrition, and other basic necessities that comfortable or even downwardly mobile people across the world have come to take for granted. 

The least we can do is lobby our governments to provide refugees with a modicum of safety and push back whenever we encounter anti-refugee rhetoric.

Update 7/8/2024

The Turkish government responded to unrest on both sides of the border by sealing it for three days. All border crossings being closed impeded both aid organizations trucking in food and medicine to displaced people as well as Syrian refugees attempting to reach their loved ones during the chaos, oftentimes bringing medicine and money to their families still living in Syria.

A 17-year-old Syrian refugee, Ahmad al-Nayef, was fatally stabbed in Serik–a district east of Antalya, the fifth-largest city in Turkey–on July 2, 2024 while anti-refugee riots were raging across the country. Three teenagers, whose names were withheld from the public, were subsequently arrested after police reportedly identified them from security camera footage and the victim’s body was returned to his family in Syria.

The Turkish military and Syrian National Army are attempting to reassert control over the civilians and militias in northern Syria who rebelled from July 1 to July 3. An unevidenced rumor that the Assad regime supported the insurrection and provided weapons used by some rebelling Syrians circulated on social media as the riots began to abate. Allegations of pro-Assad involvement may be intended to entice or intimidate SNA militias into falling back in line and siding with Turkey once again after an unprecedented mutiny.

This followed comments made by Fehim Isa, a commander within the Sultan Murad Division, threatening to shoot anyone seen taking down Turkish flags. Arrests of Syrians for involvement in the uprising were reported in Turkish media a few days later, including a 17-year-old from al-Bab who was filmed being forced to kiss a Turkish flag and “apologize to the Turkish people.” 

Isa later denied issuing the threat, which was circulated on social media accounts that have posted in his name with his face in the profile picture since 2019. Other SNA-affiliated social media accounts have tagged Isa’s alleged accounts in pictures where Isa is shown posing with other SNA commanders. 

Three million Syrian refugees living in Turkey–many of whom spent days hiding in their homes, not even stepping out to buy food out of fear of being attacked by mobs in the streets–were informed on July 4, 2024 that their passport information had been published online after a data breach at the Turkish interior ministry. 

Screenshots showing the names, ID numbers, and partial address of three million people, including Syrians who have earned Turkish citizenship, were shared in far-right, Turkish nationalist group chats with the subheading “Deport or kill.”

A 14-year-old Turk was accused of running one of the Telegram channels where the screenshots were shared, but it is highly unlikely this minor somehow hacked into his country’s Interior Ministry database. The perpetrator was probably an adult, possibly an employee of the Interior Ministry who sympathized with the rioters and wanted to further inflame the ongoing anti-refugee violence.

Insult was added to injury on July 7 when Erdogan not only reiterated his willingness to meet with Bashar al-Assad, but also went as far as to invite the Syrian dictator to Turkey, of all countries–not a third country like Iraq, but Turkey itself.

Turkey, the country that hosts more anti-Assad Syrians than any other country in the world, may soon be visited by the despot who killed more than 500,000 of his fellow citizens for having the audacity to openly oppose his dictatorial rule. 

Violence against Syrian refugees and vandalism of their property has continued on a small scale throughout Turkey, but reporting on the riots has dwindled. This is almost certainly linked to reports of Syrian refugees being detained and sent to deportation centers after they attempted to press charges against their Turkish neighbors for crimes they committed during the pogroms.

Victims of the anti-Syrian riots are now being pressured into silence by government officials who condoned if not outright encouraged the hate speech that led directly to their victimization, who are more interested in maintaining tourism revenue than pursuing justice–particularly when the perpetrators are Turkish and the victims are Syrians, Arabs, or both. 


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