Turkish restrictions make NGOs’ work in Syria harder

In early 2017, Turkish authorities tightened restrictions for humanitarian NGOs organising their Syria operations from Turkish soil. Most prominently, Mercy Corps, a U.S. organisation had to shut down its offices in Turkey in May that year. Other NGOs faced the non-renewal of their registrations and lengthy application procedures for registration and work permits contingent on quotas of Turkish employees. The Turkish government argued these measures were aimed at bringing order to the chaotic landscape of foreign organisations based in Turkey. But aid workers still face difficulties and Turkey tries to channel aid according to its political agenda.

“Most NGOs have to ask for the extension of their registration every year. But you rarely get it on time. Until the registration comes through, you are forced to close your offices,“ said one NGO staff member in the region. “Turkey is pushing NGOs to not only support projects in Syria, but also in Turkey, through AFAD,” said the staff member, who declined to be named.

AFAD, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey, is Turkey’s main national disaster management agency, running numerous programmes to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Referring to Mercy Corps, the staff member pointed to its activities in parts of northeastern Syria controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force the Turkish government says is a terrorist organisation.

“Turkey opposes aid deliveries to the Kurdish areas under the control of the YPG. I know that Turkish authorities threatened to revoke the registrations of some NGOs if they continued to work there,“ the NGO worker said.

Metin Çorabatır, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, said Turkey was concerned over its security.

“During Turkish military operations in the area of Afrin, some of the aid supplies were found in hideouts of the YPG militias. The Turkish government considers these incidents a red line. Some of the NGOs argue that such things might happen on occasion, but overall they accept this possibility because the difficult situation on the ground makes it impossible for them to control the distribution networks completely,“ he said.

The staff member’s organisation is active in Syria’s northwest, in a rural area controlled by a mix of various armed groups. While alliances shift frequently, two main blocks have emerged in the aftermath of infighting that started in January 2017: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is a jihadist coalition that grew out of the Nusra Front, Syria’s former al Qaeda franchise. Its rivals have gathered in the National Liberation Front, a Turkish-backed coalition that includes both Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham and those who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Despite the conflict, the armed factions have tolerated foreign NGO workers and allowed the passage of aid deliveries that mainly enter Syria through the HTS-controlled Bab al-Hawa border crossing. “The situation for us is difficult, of course, and the armed factions try to exert some sort of control and pressure. For example, HTS maintains an NGO office and they sometimes pay visits and ask what we do and who is funding us. But basically, the armed factions are dependent on the aid deliveries. They cannot maintain services on their own. So they tolerate us. Otherwise, the local population would revolt. The NGOs also undertook a joint effort to put pressure on HTS. Many NGOs signed a statement that threatened to withdraw from Idlib if HTS interferes in our work. At times, NGOs leave certain villages or areas if the pressure becomes unbearable and the risk of aid diversion is high,“ the staff member said.

The 12 Turkish military observation posts in Idlib, set up after last year’s Astana agreement with Russia and Iran, also do not interfere with humanitarian work in the area, the staff member said.

After Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies captured Afrin from the YPG in March, thousands of Syrian Arabs displaced from elsewhere in the country have settled in the district and neighbouring Jarabulus, leading Syrian Kurds to accuse Turkey of attempting to change the demography of the area.

But Çorabatır said: “It is true that some people who are ethnically and politically connected to the YPG left areas in the northwest. The main ethnic group in Afrin has indeed always been Kurds. The Jarabulus region however was ethnically dominated by Arabs. From what I see there is no strategic attempt to change the ethnical composition.”

“Turkey is not worse then any other actor involved in the conflict,” the NGO staff member said. “Of course they are playing their game, but so do others. And when it comes to the restriction of NGO work, one has to be balanced. Every country would demand appropriate registration. It is true that Turkish authorities are using legal measures to complicate our lives, but there were also some NGOs that didn’t have any registration in the past and who didn’t even try to get it. I think that is problematic as well. It is natural that NGOs operating from Turkey have to abide by some rules.”

Çorabatır agreed. “Calling Turkey’s restrictions a crackdown would be too much. It is correct that registrations take a long time since 2017, but sooner or later, most NGOs are getting their permits. Even though some NGOs left the country, international aid organisations are overall operational in Turkey. Note that the Turkish government and international NGOs have shared interests. For example, Turkey gets millions as part of the EU migration deal. According to EU procedures, the money cannot be funnelled directly to local NGOs. Instead, international NGOs step in and provide an intermediary role between the EU and Turkish local NGOs“.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.