Can Turkey salvage its soft power image ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit?

When the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced at the 68th session of the General Assembly in 2013 that Turkey would host the first-ever world humanitarian summit, Turkey’s soft power was standing tall. Its economy was growing a respectable 4.2 percent rate in 2013—when the United States was still battling with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the EU was mired in a currency crisis. That year, Turkish exports reached unprecedented heights (including cultural exports: Turkish soap operas were popular in as faraway lands as Brazil). Turkey was still receiving a record number of tourists, despite the civil war raging next door in Syria. And, as Ban Ki-moon noted, Turkey was rising as a major donor country and was playing a critical role in providing humanitarian assistance in Syria (as well as in Haiti, the Philippines, and elsewhere). Its open-door policy towards Syrian refugees received high praise. And Turkey ranked 20th in Monocle’s first-ever Soft Power Index.

Now the international community is gearing up to gather in Istanbul for the World Humanitarian Summit on May 22 to 24, and the picture is strikingly different. The crisis in Syria has escalated dramatically, morphing into a major security predicament for Turkey. Bombings in Turkey masterminded and hatched by the Islamic State (ISIS) have killed hundreds, and rockets are raining on Kilis, a town close to the Syrian border that now hosts more refugees than locals. The number of refugees in Turkey has increased more than threefold, from about 600,000 at the end of 2013 to almost 2.8 million today, excluding refugees from Iraq and elsewhere. More refugees now live in difficult urban conditions and are increasingly resorting to negative coping strategies as illegal work, child labor, and even prostitution. More than half of about 700,000 refugee children are not receiving proper education. Hundreds of refugees have lost their lives trying to cross into Greece across the Aegean Sea, while a lucrative smuggling business has emerged—precisely the type of commercial activity that does not sit well with Turkey’s soft power image. 

The scorecard

Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Turkish government has spent more than $10 billion in protection and public services for refugees since 2011 (not including what Turkish civil society and local governments have spent), and the Turkish people were welcoming of beleaguered Syrian refugees when they first began to arrive.

Turkey contributed to the humanitarian effort long before real offers to share the burden came from the international community. But even those offers have fallen short: The U.N. Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plans (3RPs) have remained consistently underfunded. From 2012 to May 2016, Turkey received $2.3 billion under U.N. funds and appeals—less than a quarter of its humanitarian spending. Furthermore, when Turkey was listed as the country with the largest refugee population in 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees submitted only 15,738 requests for resettlement. This is about 0.5 percent of the current Syrian refugee population in Turkey—hardly a generous manifestation of international solidarity. Hence, it is difficult not to sympathize with the Turkish leadership’s complaints that the international community has failed in its responsibility to share this burden. 

To again give credit where credit is due, the international community is increasingly recognizing this failure and is more willing to do something about it. A February donor conference for Syria in London raised pledges totaling more than $11 billion, and another in Geneva in March raised resettlement quotas, for example. And the U.N. is gearing up to hold a major international conference in September to address refugee and migrant flows. The fact that the first World Humanitarian Summit is being held in Istanbul is an opportunity for Turkey to make a constructive contribution to these efforts.

An attempt at resuscitation 

Unfortunately, the summit comes at a time when Turkey’s soft power and economy are in serious decline. New instability and violence in Turkey has scared away tourists, delivering a big blow to the economy: Tourism decreased by 16.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year, and last week Turkish Airlines announced its worst losses since 1999. Exports have fallen, too—these are a critical driver of Turkey’s economic growth. No doubt these economic troubles—combined with more critical public opinion—will impact Turkey’s ability to manage the Syrian refugee situation. 

What should Turkey do about its spiraling dilemmas? Foremost, the Turkish government needs to revisit its broader Syria policy. Hopes for swift regime change in Damascus have obviously been dashed, and now Syria is a battleground for multi-layered proxy wars. There are no innocent parties in the fight, except for suffering civilians, and Turkey itself is not unsullied. 

However, unlike most of these not-so-innocent parties, Turkey is also trying to alleviate the suffering of displaced civilians by facilitating the transfer of humanitarian assistance into Syria and by hosting large numbers of refugees. So Turkey still has some soft power to salvage and should put it to use at the upcoming summit. 

[T]he spirit and tradition of Turkish humanitarianism must live on.

First, it should address one of the international community’s growing concerns: that Syrian refugees are being denied entry into Turkey. Human Rights Watch recently reported that Turkish security forces caused the death of some refugees trying to enter Turkey; this should be taken very seriously and future similar incidents must be prevented. Turkey should retain its commendable open-door policy, in place since November 2011—that policy no doubt played a role in bringing the World Humanitarian Summit to Istanbul. 

Second, the Turkish leadership should converse constructively—not contemptuously—with its transatlantic partners. This leadership is not incorrect in complaining about failures in international burden-sharing. But it is not just the West that has failed Turkey (and for that matter Jordan and Lebanon), but the international community as a whole. In fact, the United States, the European Union, and individual European countries have provided $10.8 billion of the $16.8 billion (65 percent) for the U.N.’s emergency funds for this humanitarian crisis. Turkey should use its leverage with countries in the Muslim world to increase their funding and take more refugees for resettlement. 

Third, Turkey should not let the deal it reached with the European Union in March collapse. The deal was hard to negotiate and received appropriate criticism for prioritizing the political interests of the EU and Turkey over refugees’ humanitarian needs. While Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu—the architect of the deal and the person who brought the World Humanitarian Summit to Turkey—may no longer be in office, the spirit and tradition of Turkish humanitarianism must live on. Turkey might be able to salvage some of its soft power if it manages to smoothly transition to the next administration while preserving the deal. This would help alleviate the human consequences of Syria’s chaos and help Turkey resuscitate the trust and good will it once enjoyed in the world. In the end, that’s a key part of the effort to rescue Syrians and Syria.