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Turkey: How Much of a Safe Haven for Political Dissidents?

No one quite knows how Syrian dissident Hussein Harmoush went from the safety of a Turkish refugee camp into the clutches of the regime he thought he had escaped. But his case has his fellow political exiles nervous.

The military defector’s plight has highlighted the vulnerability of foreign political dissidents in Turkey. Some analysts are questioning Ankara’s ability or willingness to protect those seeking refuge.

Lt. Col. Harmoush, the highest-ranking soldier yet to abandon the Syrian regime, was paraded on Syrian state television on September 15, when he “confessed” to his role in the six-month-old resistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Some Syrian opposition figures accuse Ankara of arresting Harmoush and returning him to the Assad government, while others fear that their own country’s intelligence agents abducted him.

In another illustration of the dangers facing exiles in Turkey, three Chechen rebels were gunned down in broad daylight in Istanbul the day after Harmoush’s television appearance. The prime suspect was the Russian secret service.

“We have zero protection here,” Omar al-Muqdad, a Syrian opposition activist who knew and worked with Lt. Col. Harmoush, told EurasiaNet.org.

He believes the Turkish government bears responsibility for Harmoush’s disappearance. “They arrested him and handed him back to the Syrian government in exchange for PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish rebel group] prisoners,” he alleged.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry vehemently denies that Ankara was complicit in Lt. Col. Harmoush’s return to Syria, calling the allegations “totally unfounded.”

“Under the present circumstances, it is out of the question that Syrian citizens are returned to Syria, or any other country against their will,” read a September 15 statement issued by the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been outspoken in his criticism of the Syrian government’s actions. The Turkish prime minister, during a September 16 speech in Libya, warned Assad that he would pay a high price for resorting to authoritarian-style violence against his own people. “Totalitarian regimes are fading away," Erdogan said. "Popular rule is coming."

Ankara insists that the Syrians who have fled to Turkey in recent months are still ultimately the responsibility of their own country. "In order to bring to an end the reasons for their stay in Turkey, the causes that led them to flee from Syria must cease to exist. This responsibility rests with the Government of Syria."

Exactly how Lt. Col. Harmoush returned to Syria remains a mystery. Friends say that on the morning of August 29, he left the refugee camp in which he was staying in Hatay Province, bordering Syria, for what he said was a meeting with a Turkish intelligence agent. He was not seen or heard from again until he appeared on Syrian state television more than two weeks later, “confessing” his crimes and denouncing the Syrian rebel movement.

Syrian state media said he had been captured in a raid inside the country the previous week. It is an explanation fellow Syrian dissidents find difficult to accept. According to friends, Harmoush never mentioned any intention of returning to Syria and left without taking any belongings. “I called him in the morning because we were due to meet for an interview,” said al-Muqdad. “He said he was meeting an intelligence officer and then would come and join us. We never heard from him again.”

As the head of an organization of disaffected Syrian soldiers, the Free Officers Movement, Lt. Col. Harmoush had been in daily contact with other dissidents.

“It’s very unlikely he would go without informing us,” said another defected officer who worked with Lt. Col. Harmoush, speaking anonymously for fear of his safety. “We were in daily touch with each other because he was the head of the Free Officers Movement.”

Turkey has been coming in for increasing criticism by refugee advocacy groups for not doing enough to protect the thousands of Syrians who have fled to the country in recent months.

Turkish authorities reportedly have obstructed Syrians staying in the refugee camps in Hatay from gaining access to asylum procedures. Turkish officials prefer to classify the Syrians as temporary guests. “The fact that they refer to these people as ‘guests’ is concerning because they are in need of protection,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher.

In the case of Lt. Col. Harmoush, Syrian dissidents had been trying to get him to a third country to apply for asylum, according to al-Muqdad.

The Syrians’ dilemma reflects that of political exiles from a range of countries who have traveled to Turkey, a major conduit for irregular migration from the Middle East to Europe. Ankara refuses to grant permanent asylum to citizens of countries not members of the Council of Europe. Those seeking refuge must apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to be sent on to a third country.

Officials defend the policy by citing Turkey’s location at a continental crossroads, and by the inclusion of geographical restrictions in the original 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which it signed. (The restrictions were lifted in 1967). Gardner claims that thousands of potential asylees in Turkey are pressured to return each year without having had the opportunity to apply for asylum, even though in their home countries they may “face possible persecution, torture or death.”

Many of those who remain, such as Iranians and individuals from Russia’s North Caucasus, fear the long reach of the regimes they had hoped to escape.

Gokhan Bacik, head of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, claims that Turkey has a poor record of charting the activities of foreign intelligence agencies within its borders. “Up until the late 1990s, Turkey’s intelligence service was so obsessed by domestic enemies that it did not develop an effective ability to monitor foreign intelligence agencies,” Bacik said.

Officials could not be reached for comment.

But Bacik believes the country is undergoing a slow process of correction, as well as trying to make itself a safer haven for those fleeing its repressive neighbors. “My feeling is that Turkey is trying to increase its profile in terms of hosting these kinds of political dissidents,” he said.

For the Syrians especially, Turkey has been a base for various opposition gatherings focused on organizing opposition to the Assad regime, but many like al-Muqdad feel increasingly uneasy. “I’m changing where I’m living to move somewhere more secret,” he said. “I don’t feel secure here anymore.”

Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for The Times.

Turkey: How Much of a Safe Haven for Political Dissidents?

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