With the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, burdened with millions of refugees on his country's soil, and facing a hostile Syria whose airstrike had killed 33 of his soldiers, threatening to send these refugees to the European Union, via Greece, it looks like a replay of the massive refugee crisis that had rocked Europe in 2015.
But this time the refugee ploy might not get the purchase he expects and it might even backfire considering the problems that Europe is going through. The announcement by Ankara that it plans to open its land and sea borders for these refugees and asylum seekers from Syria to provide a safe passage to Europe might not work that way.
Erdogan is also banking on European support as his forces plan to launch an offensive against the Syrians near Idlib, that last rebel foothold that had already been smashed to smithereens in the four years of shelling. Though Turkey seems to have an upper hand there is every possibility of the Russians intervening and spoiling the plot. The prolonged fighting has sent more Syrian civilians into Turkey, a country already burdened with 3.5 million refugees, and Erdogan has a major problem on hand and hence his looking towards the EU to bail him out. To compound the problem, Greece, the transit point for the refugees, would have none of these guests on their land and in fact suspended all asylum applications and threatened to deport all illegal immigrants.
Even when EU law forbids such actions Greece does not seem bothered and has sent riot police with teargas and stun grenades and rubber bullets to confront the migrants. And in a group that tried the sea route their dingy capsized and resulted in the death of a child. The image of the body of a Syrian child buried in the sands had been a recurring motif of the last wave of migration. If Greece, already burdened with a debt crisis, is unable to handle the problem, the plight of the other European countries is no better with most the productive regions of Italy shut down due to Coronavirus and even Angela Merkel of Germany, who was so generous earlier to open the floodgates to Syrian refugees, not in a similar position, politically as well.
Britain has already made a noisy exit from the EU and Macron of France is not exactly popular at home and the fact that EU had not brought clarity to its own refugee policies after 2015 and had thus been looking towards Turkey for holding the baby for some more time and not open its borders for these migrants to move on. This is the moment for Erdogan to twist the knife and ask for a better deal for the services he has rendered in the past. Already the lira had slid to the lowest level against the dollar since the 2018 currency crisis as the first Syrian airstrikes killed the Turkish soldiers at Idlib.
Meanwhile the Turkish threat of retaliation against the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army portends the involvement of Russia to the aid of Damascus which would, in turn, drag in the NATO as well of which Turkey is a member. With the lira sinking and Europe not in mood for a confrontation, Erdogan’s options are getting to be limited.
Turkey had already declared it won’t stand in the way of people using its territory as a transit point to escape from Syria and other war-ravaged countries, as thousands of desperate migrants flock toward the Greek border where their security forces deployed tear gas to hold them back.
According to the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, he had received reassurances that Turkey ‘remains committed’ to a 2016 deal under which Ankara stemmed the flow of migrants toward Europe in exchange for financial assistance. That now seems entirely up for debate as Erdogan’s spokesman has now said Ankara would ‘loosen” its stance on refugees if Idlib falls to Assad’s forces. The humanitarian crisis would get worse unless the Syrian government stops attacks, Erdogan had told French President Emmanuel Macron.
According to a Turkish minister more than 76,000 refugees have already left his country through Edirne province, bordering Greece and Bulgaria, though it was not clear if all of them have crossed into Europe or have been stuck in the no-man’s land somewhere.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian anti-migrant League, has declared that he would not accept Turkey letting refugees into the EU. ‘Now the Turks say everyone’s free, everyone can go, we were joking. No, we’re willing to be kind, but not to be treated like idiots.’
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who was in government with a far-right party in the past, said there must be no repeat of 2015 -- or he will be forced to take unilateral action to protect his country’s borders.‘This is now the trial by fire for the European Union whether the external border defence works or not,’ Kurz said in Vienna. ‘If the external border protection of the European Union doesn't work, then Europe without internal borders is history.’Kurz continued, ‘This is a Turkish campaign. It is an attack by Turkey on the European Union and Greece. People are being abused in order to put pressure on Europe.'
'As the European Union, we mustn't be susceptible to blackmail. If the European Union isn't able to defy President Erdogan then we are not only showing weakness but it's also the beginning of the end.’
Germany, meanwhile, finds itself in a leadership vacuum with Merkel, who took a bold stand in 2015, now in her twilight years and her governing party is in the throes of a fierce battle over who will take over.
With more migrants expected, the prospect of a bloody showdown looms in a continent already gripped by fear and travel restrictions due to the spectre of the Coronavirus that is morphing to assume pandemic proportions and seem to defy national frontiers, or coast guards.
All the while in the working class neighbourhood of Zeytinburnu in Istanbul, desperate migrants huddle in groups to debate whether to travel to the border with Greece so they could achieve their dream of reaching a safer Europe and news of Erdogan’s decision to open the frontier, had sent a wave of excitement through the district of about 300,000 people. This has been the home to young Afghans, Central Asians and Iranians.
The village chief of Marasia on the banks of the river along the Greek-Turkish border called Evros and Meric in their respective languages, recalled, ‘We used to get families from Syria, but now we get mainly young men. People here used to give refugees water and clothing, but the situation now looks like an invasion.’
Politically Erdogan is not in a commanding position having lost some of the elections to the posts of mayors in some cities and the financial crunch and now to add to the problem is the Coronavirus that seems to be universal and sparing of none. His scheduled meeting with Russian President Putin that has been postponed more than once might still take place even though the latter is much committed to baling out Assad. The plot could not have been thicker.
Russian political observers seem much optimistic of the summit of the two, but Putin looks like going alone for the time being. So while Erdogan has been using his martial rhetoric against Syria, Putin has maintained a stoic silence, not uttering a word about the conflict, though his foreign minister had recalled the Sochi agreements of 2018 and the need to respect these which were framed to de-escalate tensions in the region and establish security for the Idlib zone. While Ankara has been demanding that Syrian forces withdraw from the dividing line, Assad has been accusing it of backing the terrorist groups operating in the Idlib area.
Meanwhile Germany has offered a generous 111 m dollar aid for people of the conflict region. And its foreign minister has said Germany would offer the United Nations additional funding after meeting his counterparts in the European Union at Zagreb, in Croatia. He has also called upon humanitarian organisations to continue giving aid for the people and cross-border access. There are one million internally displaced persons and hence immediate ceasefire and provision of supplies to these people caught in the crossfire are the urgent need. He has also appealed to Russia and Turkey to work out such preconditions to facilitate this and asked Moscow to exert pressure on the ‘Assad regime to finally stop the attacks on hospitals and schools. The scale of humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib is catastrophic,’ he said.
On the ground, however, the reality is something different and does not match the sentiments expressed or the rhetoric. Erdogan’s timing is perfect particularly at a moment when populists and bleeding hearts are beating the drum about migrants coming to Europe amid a possible Coronavirus pandemic
Despite the thickening plot this has not been like anything on the scale of the 2015 refugee crisis when almost a million people crossed into Europe, stoking anti-immigration sentiments that were to change the face of the continent’s politics. And ironically Turkey is the biggest host of migrants in the world with more than 3.5 million Syrians on its soil and Erdogan says hundreds of thousands of people are already on the move from Idlib and their total number could exceed 2 million. And according to all indications Turkey seems stuck with this refugee burden, despite all the posturing of Erdogan.