From left, Charles Fries, France's ambassador in Turkey, Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Turkey's FM Mevlut Cavusoglu and EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos, pose for photos in Ankara, Oct. 4, 2019.
From left, Charles Fries, France ambassador, Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Turkey's FM Mevlut Cavusoglu and EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos, pose for photos in Ankara, Oct. 4, 2019.

ISTANBUL - Senior German and European Union officials have finished a two-day visit to Turkey to save a migrant deal in an effort to avert a humanitarian crisis.

The number of migrants entering Greece from Turkey continues to surge, following a threat by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open the borders to Europe.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and French ambassador to Turkey Charles Fries held meetings that began Thursday with senior Turkish ministers.

"Productive and frank," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday in describing the talks. "We said that migration is a humanitarian issue, and our cooperation should continue. Also, we laid out our expectations from the EU."

"There is an urgent need to control the departures from Turkey," commissioner Avramopoulos said, as the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek islands are causing alarm within the EU.

"I appreciate the work already done by Turkey, especially as the migratory pressure on Turkey continues," he added, speaking at a joint press conference Thursday evening with the Turkish and German interior ministers and the ambassador.

"Without your solidarity, the migration problem in our region would not have been overcome," Seehofer said.

Heading their delegations, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, 2nd right, and European Commissioner for Immigration Dimitris Avramopoulos, left, attend a meeting to discuss cooperation on migration management in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 4, 2019.

Gatekeeper role

Since Ankara signed a deal in 2016 with the EU to control migration, Turkey has become Europe's gatekeeper. The agreement ended the mass migration into the EU, which saw nearly a million people entering Greece in 2015. In the following years, the number fell to around 30,000 annually.

In the last few months, however, numbers have been rising again. According to the United Nations, 9,000 migrants entered Greece from Turkey in September, bringing the total to more than 40,000 since the start of the year.

The rise in migrants coincides with Erdogan threatening to open Turkey's borders to migrants unless his country's needs are addressed.

Erdogan accuses the EU of failing to honor its financial commitments as part of the migrant deal. Under the agreement, $6.5 billion was pledged to help Ankara host 3.6 million Syrian refugees, but as of June, only $2.4 billion had been paid.

Brussels said Ankara has failed to provide details on how the money will be used. Erdogan has dismissed such claims as excuses, pointing out that Turkey has already spent more than $30 billion hosting the refugees.

Analysts suggest Ankara does have powerful leverage over Europe.

"Europeans are scared stiff of another possible influx of refugees," said Soli Ozel, an international relations lecturer at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "Straight after Erdogan spoke about opening borders, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel called Erdogan. What Ankara wants is money."

Seehofer said Turkey has faced "enormous" migratory pressure.

"And that is why we must look at how this pact between the European Union and Turkey can be strengthened," he added, after meeting his Turkish counterpart, Suleyman Soylu. The German minister indicated extra funding for Turkey was on the table.

Ankara's stepping up of pressure on Europe comes as Turkey braces for a new surge of Syrian refugees. Soylu warned Thursday that up to 3.75 million Syrians could seek refuge in Turkey if Damascus forces overrun Idlib, the last rebel-controlled enclave in northwest Syria.

"Many people in Turkey are already very unhappy with the nearly 4 million refugees," said Professor Mesut Casin, an Erdogan adviser. "If more millions [refugees] come from Idlib, Turkey cannot take any more, as Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would open the border to Europe. The refugee problem is not just Turkey's problem, but Europe's."

Members of pro-Islamic groups stage a rally to defend Syrian refugees and migrants, in Istanbul, July 27, 2019.

Resettlement plan

Erdogan is pressing Europe for support for his plans to resettle millions of Syrians in northeast Syria. Turkish forces are poised to create a 30-kilometer-deep corridor into the region. Ankara says the corridor is necessary to protect the Turkish border from the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey.

Syria, Russia and Iran have raised questions over Erdogan's plans for a mass return of Syrians, as Ankara remains at loggerheads with Washington over Ankara's plans in northeast Syria.

The two NATO allies have a tentative deal to create a corridor in Syria, but analysts say significant differences remain. The Syrian Kurdish militia is a crucial ally of the Washington-led war against the Islamic State terror group.

Ankara says its patience is running out with Washington, warning it will act unilaterally in Syria if its agreement is not implemented quickly.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar discussed Syria by telephone Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Friday saw the third joint patrol between Turkish and U.S. forces in Syria. The patrols are part of efforts to create a corridor to protect Turkey's border.

Some analysts suggest Erdogan's stepping up of pressure on his Western allies could be a sign the Turkish president realizes that time is running out to address mounting domestic pressure over Syrian refugees.

"Domesticity is a huge problem. This is a huge problem for Erdogan. This is what is called chickens coming from home to roost," said Ozel, the Kadir Has University lecturer. "My understanding is, anywhere in the country where there is a concentration of Syrians is like a tinderbox. I was just with people who work in the municipalities of Hatay and Antep [Turkish cities bordering Syria]. They are really scared that something is just going to explode."