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Erdogan’s refugee pawns

In opening its borders to Syrian refugees, Turkey is playing a card it previously wielded as a threat against the EU; one that some European officials have openly called blackmail

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Tuesday 3 Mar 2020
Erdogan’s refugee pawns
Placards on security barriers outside the Russian Consulate following a protest against the killing of Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib (photo: Reuters)

In the aftermath of an airstrike in Idlib last Thursday that killed more than 33 Turkish soldiers and wounded more than 30, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had opened the gates for Syrian refugees to “flood” Europe. Tens of thousands of refugees carrying whatever belongings they have on their backs or heads hastened northward towards the Turkish borders with Europe, as though escaping hell.

Turkish gendarmes, wearing surgical masks, merely pointed them in the direction of Kastanies. On the other side, Greek authorities complained that the rush was orchestrated and raised the Greek border alert to high. Bulgaria acted similarly, sending thousands of troops to its borders with Turkey to keep the refugees out.

That at least 78,000 refugees (according to Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s unsubstantiated figure) had massed at the borders virtually overnight strongly supports the contention that this was orchestrated and probably planned a long time ago. It would take weeks and considerable resources to move so many people northward from refugee centres in southern Anatolia.

As the Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn observed in his 27 February meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Ankara’s move came as no surprise. After all, Erdogan had repeatedly wielded this refugee card to persuade Brussels to give him more money, to support this policy or that, or to stop criticising his regime’s rights abuses. This time, judging from Turkish press reports, it is to bow to his demand for a no flight zone over Syria to “protect hundreds of thousands of innocent lives”.

That same media has been relaying images of another heartrending tragedy: thousands of innocent people, perhaps forcibly evicted from refugee camps, caught in a no man’s land where violent scuffles have erupted while microphones blare in English and Arabic: “The borders are closed.”

To the south, Turkish officials pointed asylum seekers in a riskier direction — the sea route. Hundreds of refugees made it to the shores of Lesbos, Chios and Samos by rubber dinghy within hours after Erdogan announced he had opened the borders.

Turkey has “welcomed refugees with open arms for years while Europe puts up kilometres of barbed wire barricades to keep them out”, Turkey’s pro-government media proclaims, without mentioning the Turkish hand extended for billions of Euros in exchange for this service.

Turkish journalists who do not toe the propaganda line are at risk, as always. Many were arrested for interviewing refugees who complained at how the Turkish regime traded in their suffering. The journalists were charged with taking photographs in a security area where photography was banned, even though state media was transmitting live footage from the same place.

Greek police “are firing tear gas into the thousands waiting at their doors. We do not have to prevent people from leaving our country. But Greece has duty to treat them like humans,” tweeted an indignant Foreign Minster Mevlut Cavusoglu. Left unmentioned were the dire conditions that made so many refugees desperate to leave his country. There were also reports that they were joined by a number of Turkish citizens from southern Hatay fearful of what was becoming of their province which had become home to the Syrian jihadist organisations Ankara supports.

So far, there are no signs that Europe will cave in to what many European officials have openly called “Erdogan’s blackmail” and, in some quarters of the European press, “Erdogan’s madness”. Margaritis Schinas, vice-president of the EU Commission for Promoting the European Way of Life, which interacts with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), has called for an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to discuss the “explosive” situation.

In like manner, EU High Representative Josep Borrell has called for an extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council to discuss the unfolding situation, adding: “At the same time, we continue to follow closely the migration situation at our external borders. The EU-Turkey statement needs to be upheld. The EU is engaged in supporting Greece and Bulgaria in addressing the unfolding situation.”

Borrell also said: “The ongoing renewed fighting in and around Idlib represents a serious threat to international peace and security. It is causing an untold human suffering among the population, and having a grave impact on the region and beyond. The European Union needs to redouble efforts to address this terrible human crisis with all the means at its disposal.” Nevertheless, as Syrian government forces continue their advance on the ground in Idlib, it appears that much is contingent on a meeting between Erdogan and Putin who, apparently after keeping Erdogan in suspense for a while, agreed to a meeting set for Thursday or Friday.

Cavusoglu said that he expected the two leaders to reach “a joint understanding”. The wording implies a parity that does not exist between Russia and Turkey, especially when it comes to Syria.

Firstly, the forthcoming meeting will take place in Moscow, not in Istanbul, and it will not include Paris and Berlin. Two weeks ago, Erdogan had called for a four-way meeting on 5 March between himself and Merkel, Macron and Putin. Second, although the US and NATO have said that they supported their NATO ally, this is unlikely to translate into concrete support for Turkey on the ground in Syria. Third, Lavrov has made it clear that only if Turkey fulfills its commitments under the Sochi agreement will it be able to spare the lives of its soldiers.

There can be no compromising with terrorists in Syria, he said. While he did not mention who backs them, the Russian press has openly accused Turkish forces based in the Turkish observation posts in Idlib of supplying the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front (referring to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham) with heavy weapons including anti-aircraft artillery that has been used to fire at Russian aircraft. Fifth, the Kremlin has other partners on the ground in Syria, most notably Iran, which counselled Erdogan to be sensible, and China whose ambassador to the UN said that defeating terrorist forces in Syria was essential to ending the conflict there.

Erdogan will have few options when he boards his plane to Sheremetyevo International Airport. He can do very little to alter the balances of powers in Syria, which are tilted in favour of the Moscow-backed Syrian regime. Perhaps the most he can hope for is some concession wheedled out of Moscow that can be presented as a coup back home before public opinion turns against him if more Turkish soldiers lose their lives as the result of his Syrian exploits.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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