Turks debate Syrian rebel flags in Istanbul new year celebrations

A video of hundreds of Syrian men celebrating the new year in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, waving Syrian rebel flags and chanting slogans against Syrian President Bashar Assad sparked heated debate on social media in Turkey

Initial reactions to the video footage generally criticised the Syrian refugees for celebrating new year in the safety of Turkey’s largest city, while the Turkish soldiers fought for them in their homeland. 

“On the one side there are the glorious Turkish soldiers. On the other side, there are the dogs of Syria celebrating new year,” one Turkish Twitter user said in a widely shared post.

But discussion on Syrian’s relations focused more on the fact that those at Taksim square were waving Free Syrian Army (FSA) flags.

“Pay attention, they did not open Syrian flags, the opened FSA flags. If you want to save your country from Assad, go and open that flag in Syria, not in Taksim. So that, while you are enjoying yourselves, our Mehmeds (Turkish soldiers) will not have to keep guard,” İsmail Saymaz, a reporter for the Hürriyet newspaper said on Twitter. 

The FSA, founded by Syrian rebels at the early days of the conflict, has turned to Turkey as an ally after being split into different factions and losing support of the United States.

Turkey’s relations with the FSA have deepened over time, as FSA fighters joined Turkey’s military operations in Syria. Some 35,000 FSA members fought alongside Turkish troops in an offensive to capture the Kurdish-held northwestern Syrian district of Afrin

FSA fighters have also announced that they would participate in a military operation Turkish leaders have said they would carry out against Kurdish controlled zones in northeast Syria. Turkey provides training and equipment to FSA fighters, as well as paying the salaries to those involved in military operations. 

Apart from pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s opposition parties so far have supported Turkey’s military campaigns in Syria, presented by the government as necessary operations against Kurdish groups that pose a threat to Turkish national security. 

Yet, images of Turkish and FSA flags unfurled side by side in Afrin, after Turkey seized control of the city last year, have never been discussed as fiercely as were FSA flags in Istanbul.

A Turkish and a Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldier wave Turkish and FSA flags in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, early Sunday, March 18, 2018.
A Turkish and a Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldier wave Turkish and FSA flags in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, early Sunday, March 18, 2018. (via AP)

Deputies of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) took the lead on Tuesday in expressing their outrage at Syrian men at Taksim square.

The leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Wednesday asked parliament to launch an inquiry into new year celebrations in Taksim, saying that by letting Syrians wave FSA flags, the Turkish government allowed activities in Turkey against the Syrian government. 

Ünal Çeviköz, a CHP deputy who submitted the proposal for the inquiry, said the relations between Turkey and the FSA were not transparent and harmed the credibility of the Turkish military. Çeviköz also said the relationship risked the success of the Astana process, launched by Turkey, Russia, and Iran, to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. 

There were also some social media users who tried to explain Turkey’s real reasons for being in Syria and pointed to contradictory attitudes towards the FSA. Others said there was no connection between Turkey’s military presence in Syria and Syrians celebrating new year in Turkey.

“Turkish soldiers enter Syria for Turkey’s national interests. On the other hand, people who fled the war celebrate new year. There is no relation between the two,” one Twitter user said.

Mehmet Kuzulugil from the Turkish Communist Party criticised those he said tried to analyse refugee issues without even knowing the difference between Syrian and FSA flags. 

“What about saying to your government, ‘stop supporting jihadis stirring up Syria so that peace can come and refugees can return to their homeland’?” he asked.

There are some 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Recent surveys show the Turkish public is disturbed by the increasing refugee population.