Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he has hopes of reaching a deal on a cease-fire in Syria's northwest when he meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Moscow.
“I hope that he will take the necessary measures there, such as a cease-fire, and that we will find a solution to this affair,” the Turkish leader said in a televised speech Monday.
His European neighbors fervently hope a deal is struck. Until there is, they see little chance that Erdogan will stop encouraging war refugees, mainly from Syria but also from other Mideast countries currently in Turkey, to head to Greece, either on land or by boat. This is Erdogan's geopolitical move, European officials say, aimed at blackmailing them to support his fight with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the fate of Idlib.
Refugee numbers are surging along Turkey’s frontier with Greece since Erdogan announced last week that he had “opened the doors” for asylum-seekers to Europe.
The European Union, Erdogan said, “should keep its promises,” referring to a 2016 deal with Brussels to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros in financial aid.
But as far as European leaders are concerned, it is Erdogan who’s failing to keep to his end of the bargain. They see his play as an unscrupulous bid to ensnare them in his own geopolitical ambitions in northern Syria.
Erdogan turned the rhetorical screws on Europe Saturday by proclaiming his country can no longer accommodate people fleeing Syria.
“What did we do yesterday? We opened the doors," he said. He also warned: “We will not close the doors hereafter.”
The fighting in northwest Syria, which has sharply escalated since December, has propelled a million Syrians, mostly women and children, to flee toward the Turkish border to escape a fierce Russian-backed Syrian government offensive on Idlib, the last remaining anti-Assad rebel stronghold, as well as the campaign by Turkey and its Syrian allies to reverse the gains made by Assad’s forces.
Erdogan has made clear he wants a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in a swath of territory in northern Syria where he can resettle the more than 3 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. He also wants a buffer zone in order to keep Syrian Kurdish groups, whom he sees as a national security threat, away from the border, analysts say.
Observers see Erdogan’s encouragement of refugees to head to Turkey “as a threat aimed at prompting EU member states to increase their financial pledges to Turkey in support of the refugees already living there, and to step up support for efforts to care for the displaced in Idlib,” said Nigar Göksel, Turkish director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “The EU has already disbursed over 3 billion euros to help Syrian refugees in the country, of the total 6 billion that it had promised Turkey in 2016. Turkey has requested a third tranche, and is seeking other aid, as well,” she added.
"Ankara has long warned the EU that unless it provides support for reconstruction in areas that Turkey controls in Syria, as well as a no-fly zone in those areas, it cannot rely on Turkey to impede movement of refugees onward to Europe,” Göksel said.
The escalating confrontation between Russian-backed Syria and NATO-member Turkey, which risks pushing Turkey ever closer to all-out war with Damascus and Russia, is prompting European alarm not only of the risks of the conflict widening, but of a refugee crisis similar to the one in 2015, when more than a million migrants poured into Europe in what became the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War II. The influx fueled the rise of anti-migrant populist parties across the continent.
Greece said Sunday it has blocked more than 10,000 refugees from crossing its border with Turkey. Many of the asylum-seekers include families with young children, according to the International Organization for Migration. Greek officials dismissed Turkish claims that more than a 100,000 refugees have already crossed the border into Greece. And observers on the ground also say the Turkish claims are widely exaggerated. Reporters on the border say they have seen evidence of a few hundred at most managing to sneak across the frontier.
Populist politicians in Europe have been quick to seize on Erdogan’s threats. Italy’s Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant Lega Party, said Saturday, “We’re willing to be kind, but not to be treated like idiots.” He said the EU should not be blackmailed by Ankara.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter there can be no repeat of 2015. He warned he would take unilateral action to protect Austria’s borders.
According to Turkish officials, Erdogan warned French President Emmanuel Macron in a phone call Saturday that a migrant crisis is in the making unless the Assad government halts its offensive on Idlib. He told his French counterpart that NATO should show solidarity with Turkey, as well as share the refugee burden.
There’s little enthusiasm for Erdogan among Europe’s leaders, who have chafed at Turkey’s slide toward authoritarian rule, and bristled at the Turkish leader’s habit of playing Europe off against Russia and vice versa in his transactional efforts to get what he wants.
European officials say they are determined to avoid getting dragged into a general standoff with Russia over Syria.
“We have enough on our hands with the burgeoning coronavirus crisis,” a top EU diplomat told VOA.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron have been in regular contact with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's president to discuss ways to defuse the crisis in Syria.
But analysts say the Turkish leader can ill-afford to see his plans for Idlib dashed, which would amount to a personal and political setback. Abandoning his intervention in Idlib would likely fuel domestic unrest in Turkey, where anti-refugee sentiment is mounting.
Erdogan adviser Fahrettin Altun says Turkey’s expectation from NATO is that the alliance will declare a no-fly zone in northwestern Syria. NATO has so far refrained from doing so and is offering only vague support, hoping that diplomacy will take its course and provide a solution to the deadly military confrontation in Idlib.
Soner Cagaptay, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Turkey is holding out hope that U.S. President Donald Trump will accede to a Turkish request for two batteries of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. Their mere presence could deter Syrian and Russian air missions over Idlib and help check Assad in Idlib, Cagaptay said.
In a tweet, Cagaptay argued that one likely scenario is that “Idlib is partitioned, yet again, between Assad and Ankara. Assad takes most of its territory and Ankara a bulk of its population. Can kicked down the road — until the next crisis.”